In the end, no one could beat Hempfield Area.
For the second straight season, the Spartans softball team finished as the PIAA champion, winning the PIAA Class 6A title Thursday afternoon at Nittany Lion Softball Park.
Behind the stellar pitching of Morgan Ryan and an opportunistic offense, Hempfield Area beat Hazleton 5-3 for its 41st consecutive victory.
“As good as last year,” said shortstop Ali Belgiovane, who was 4 for 4 and scored twice for the school from Greensburg. “It’s nice as a senior to walk away like that, let that be my last game.”
Ryan struck out nine in her final game before heading to Notre Dame. The 2017 Gatorade Pennsylvania Player of the Year finished with a program-record 74 career wins and 199 strikeouts on the season.
Despite that resume, Hazleton fans frequently chanted “Overrated!” during the game.
“We were obviously really mad,” Belgiovane said. “Those words don’t win you the game, our actions win us the game.”
Added Ryan: “That really just fueled our fire. We really wanted to give it to the team, kind of shut their fans up.”
The drama lasted to the end.
After a single with two out in the bottom of the seventh, Hazleton’s Megan Trivelpiece lofted what looked like the final out to left field — but the ball was dropped.
“I was already starting to jump up and down,” Ryan said.
Tiana Treon then singled home a run before Ryan induced a ground out to end the game.
“I thought, ‘Maybe we do have a chance,’” Hazleton coach Heather Natt said. “We can do it. Everybody cracks under pressure. Just keep putting the ball in play. They’ll make mistakes. They’re human too.”
The Hazleton Cougars got their other runs on a Kyla Antolick two-run double in the second.
The Spartans racked up 13 hits, with eight of the nine starters collecting at least one.
“Bottomless cup of coffee,” said Hempfield Area coach Robert Kalp, who had only four returning starters from last year’s title team.
Hempfield Area posted single runs in the first, third and fourth. A Ryan double off the left field wall plated the first run, a Laura Fox double to left brought in the next score and Stacey Walling doubled with pinch runner Olivia Person scoring on an error in the fourth.
The Spartans got two more in the fifth with Belgiovane singling and later racing home after an attempted pickoff throw bounced off her at third and Madison Stoner adding an RBI single.
“Just going back-to-back is an amazing feat,” Kalp said. “It’s not like having a professional football team or baseball team where you can retain players. You lose via graduation; usually, that changes the dynamics of the team.”