Philipsburg-Osceola is the last of an endangered species at the top of the District 6 Class AA softball tournament.
The No. 1 Lady Mounties were only team among the top four seeds to survive the opening round of the district playoffs on Thursday. Nos. 13, 14 and 15 were among the five teams to pull upsets, according to the bracket seedings.
“I can say one thing: it’s a good motivator,” said P-O coach Jim Gonder, whose Lady Mounties (18-1) host upset-minded Mount Union (15-4) at 4 p.m. in the second round Monday. “You don’t have to look very far to see why you need to bring your game for every game.”
Penns Valley, the other Centre County team in action Monday, is one of those squads that pulled off an upset. The 13th seeded Lady Rams (10-10) bounced No. 4 Central, a team with most of its players back from finishing second in the district last season.
It is the second consecutive season Penns Valley had pulled a first-round upset as a double-digit seed. The 15th seeded Lady Rams knocked off No. 2 Richland 13-3 last season.
“Our regular season prepares us for the postseason,” said Penns Valley coach Don Lucas, whose squad travels to No. 5 Bellwood-Antis (19-2) at 4 p.m. “We think we have one of the toughest districts in the state. We play some of the toughest teams in the state. We’re battling week-in and week-out. Even if you look at it, some of the teams that have been down were tough this year. … Some of the games you’d look at and say, ‘Well, there’s a win,’ you can’t do that now.”
“I think there’s a lot of parity,” Gonder added. “I haven’t seen any of the teams from Johnstown and the Heritage League, but there’s some parity there, which is a good thing for softball.”
Gonder’s team didn’t give any indication of a chink in its armor in the opening round. The Lady Mounties rolled to an 8-0 win against No. 16 Bishop McCort behind Kate Burge’s no-hitter.
While the score might not suggest it, Gonder said McCort was solid, especially pitcher Ricki Conrad, who had a 3-9 record enerting the game.
“I thought we played well,” he said. “Bishop McCort was actually a challenge. (Conrad) wasn’t what I expected for a first-round pitcher. She did a nice job. That was actually a good thing for us because we saw some decent pitching in the first game.”
Burge provided some pretty strong pitching, too. She came within a seventh-inning walk of a perfect game.
“Kate was in a groove that day,” Gonder said. “She got ahead in the count, which is always a plus for her. Her pitches were working. She was changing speeds. We’re hoping that keeps working for her.”
Burge ‘s no-hitter was her third in the last two postseasons.
Gonder offers several reasons why the right-hander (15-0 this season) has baffled foes in the playoffs
“She’s had some pressure games that she has to play in which helps her,” he started. “In addition to that, as the year goes on the weather gets warmer and she starts to loosen up and throw better. All pitchers do. I also think these other teams haven’t seen much of her and the first time around it’s a little tougher with the quality of pitcher that she is.”
Gonder says his squad will need a good effort today against Mount Union, which knocked off eighth-seeded Marion Center 4-3 thanks to Kristin Miles’ RBI double that snapped a 3-3 tie in the top of the seventh. The Lady Trojans rallied from a 3-1 deficit.
Gonder expects a tough clash with Matt Fiscus’ club. The two teams met last season in the semifinals and the Lady Trojans led 1-0 through four innings. The Lady Mounties broke the game open with four runs in the fifth and won behind Burge’s three-hitter.
“They’re well coached,” Gonder said of Mount Union. “Matt does a nice job with them. I’m looking for a good ballgame.”
Penns Valley at Bellwood-Antis
While his team pulled off the upset against Richland last season, Lucas said Thursday’s win over Central was maybe more satisfying for his players. The Lady Rams had fallen 4-0 and 13-3 in the regular season to the Lady Dragons, a veteran squad that many felt could challenge P-O’s district dominance.
“This time around they felt like they had earned a little bit of respect,” Lucas said of Thursday’s triumph. “We had played Bald Eagle Area tough. We had played P-O tough a couple of times. Against Bellefonte, we couldn’t seem to buy a hit. … We’ve faced some pretty good competition. We didn’t always succeed, but we were in the ballgames.
“I think when they beat Central, they felt like we’re where we need to be. We’re starting to put it together and we hope we can keep it going. … It was good to see them beat a quality team and they did.”
The Lady Rams jumped on Central from the start with Ashley Struble leading off the contest with a home run. Struble (3 for 4) and Madisyn Sharer (4 for 4) combined for seven of the Lady Rams’ 14 hits against Kylie Gunnett, who had beaten them twice during the regular season. Maggie Lynch tossed a four-hitter.
“We just played a complete ballgame,” Lucas said. “We were relaxed. We knew going in that you have to play well or you’re going home. That’s just the way it is.
“From the get-go, we hit up and down the lineup. We starched her for 14 hits. Lynch just pitched a very good game, kept the ball down in the zone and hit her spots. Defensively, (Mackenzie) Ironside in center field made some phenomenal catches. That’s how you’re going to win a great game like that. You need people making great plays and some offensive support.”
The Lady Rams face a defending District 6 champion. The Lady Blue Devils have made the jump from Class A, where they won the crown last season, but have played a similar schedule as last season. Their lone losses are 6-3 to Mount Union and 1-0 against Claysburg-Kimmel.
Bellwood-Antis does own a win over defending Class AAA champion Bellefonte, winning 1-0 behind pitcher Taylor Payne in the title game of the Lady Red Raiders’ tournament. The Lady Blue Devils also beat Central 2-1.
After a 3-1 victory over Westmont Hilltop on Thursday, Payne is 17-2 with a 0.88 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 119 innings. At the plate, the Lady Blue Devils are led by Emily Nagle (.464, 21 RBIs), Jacqueline Finn (.429, four homers, 25 RBIs), Payne (.365, 19 RBIs) and Lauren Snyder (.348, 19 RBIs).
“Bellwood, they’re a nice ballteam, too,” Lucas said. “I saw them against Bellefonte early in the year at the Bellefonte tournament and they beat Bellefonte 1-0. I don’t know much about them other than I saw them in the districts last year. I know their pitcher is pretty good. We’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game if we hope to extend our season.”
If Penns Valley can win, the Lady Rams could get another shot at Philipsburg-Osceola in the semifinals.
“You hope that our schedule and the teams in our league prepare you for games like this,” Lucas said. “We know what lies ahead of us if we’re fortunate enough to win on Monday, but we’re not going to get caught looking ahead. We’ll just have to play a good game and see what happens.”