It’s a pretty rare occasion when two defending District 6 champions meet in a playoff game, but that’s exactly what’s going to happen Thursday afternoon in Philipsburg.
Bellwood-Antis (20-2), the Class A champion last season, has moved up a classification and will face three-time defending champion Philipsburg-Osceola at 4 p.m. in the Class AA semifinals.
Also Thursday, defending champion Bellefonte (10-10) travels to Somerset (11-9) in the Class AAA semifinals.
Bellwood-Antis coach Jim Payne admits the news that the school’s enrollment numbers had jumped the program to Class AA for the first time wasn’t well received by Lady Blue Devil fans.
“When everybody announced we were in Class AA, it just kind of deflated a lot of people around,” said Payne. “But we thought, ‘What (is) a better a way to validate our program?’ I now feel comfortable because we’ve made noise in (Class) AA.”
Behind hard-throwing right-hander Taylor Payne (18-2), the Lady Blue Devils are making more noise than they’re hearing in Philipsburg. Bellwood-Antis has beaten Westmont Hilltop 3-1 and enns Valley 5-3 in the opening rounds of the playoffs and had regular season wins over Central, he District 6 Class AA runner-up last season, and Bellefonte, the defending Class AAA champ.
“They’re very well coached and they’re a very good team,” said Lady Mounties coach Jim Gonder said of the Lady Blue Devils. “I’ve heard nothing but really great things about their pitcher. They’ve got a solid catcher and a good hitting team. They’ve got all the ingredients to be a really good team. I don’t think it really matters what classification they’re from. They’re going to be good.”
Jim Payne readily admits that what Gonder has built is what his program would like to be. The Lady Mounties have won a pair of state titles and been to two more title games since 2000.
“That’s a program,” he said. “That’s where Bellwood aspires to be. We want to be not just a one-and-done. We want to have a program.”
While the Blue Devils admire where P-O is, they’re certainly not ready to let the Lady Mounties take another step toward their 10th district title under Gonder.
“I think as a whole, Bellwood softball is excited to take on a powerhouse like that,” Jim Payne said. “It kind of puts us back in the role that we’re used to with the underdog status. ... Our kids tend to respond in that role. I like that role.”
Taylor Payne, who was a batgirl in elementary school the last time Bellwood-Antis traveled to Philipsburg, also is confident her team can play with the Lady Mounties.
“I saw them at districts (last year),” she said. “Kate Burge, we know a lot about her. She’s a good pitcher. That team is a good-hitting team. If we play solid defense, I think it’s going to be a really good game.”
Gonder knows his team has a challenge in facing Payne, who outdueled the more heralded Ronette Claar of Claysburg-Kimmel in the Blue Devils’ 2-0 district title win last season.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her pitch, but what I’ve heard from people I trust, she’s a quality pitcher,” Gonder said.
“We hope she keeps climbing and keeps progressing,” Jim Payne said of his daughter. “You’ve got to have big-time players in big-time games and that’s what’s coming for us.”
P-O is used to big games and the Lady Mounties have methodically marched through the regular season and past Bishop McCort (8-0) and Mount Union (5-1) in the opening two rounds of the postseason.
Gonder says his team has thrived under the pressure. “They’ve played well in all of the games we’ve been in,” he said. “This team has played some very good teams this year.”
Gonder said the Lady Mounties’ success has been no accident.
“They get after it every day,” he said. “They want to get better every day. The competition and work ethic those kids have has been superior this year. They really know what they want to accomplish and they’re going to give it their best. They don’t want to leave anything to question.”
Burge improved to 16-0 on the season with Monday’s five-hitter. Abby Showers’ two-run homer over the Lady Trojans showcases a lineup that features seven legitimate longball threats.
Haley Frank, who moved to the leadoff spot midway through the season, has been setting the table for a potent attack.
“I don’t think she’s the prototypical leadoff hitter,” Gonder said of Frank, who is hitting better than .400 this season. “But, she makes good contact and she gets on base, so from that respect she is. You’d think of her more as a No. 2 hitter, but she’s done great in the leadoff role.”
Speedy lefty Erin Nagle (.464) leads the Bellwood-Antis offense. Catcher Jacqueline Finn (.429) provides the pop with four homers and 29 RBIs.
The winner not only advances to the title game, but secures a berth in the PIAA tournament.
“They know what’s on the line and they know all the implications of the game,” Gonder said of his players. “I just hope both teams play a great ballgame.”
Bellefonte at Somerset
The Lady Red Raiders, who have won district titles in 12 of the last 13 seasons, are not in their usual position atop the Class AAA bracket and will have a rare semifinal game on the road.
Bellefonte coach Gregg Kohlhepp feels certainly the team’s regular season has prepared them for the bus ride to Somerset.
“We’re excited to be back in the playoffs,” he said. “We’re used to being on the road at this point in the season. We finished with 9 out of 10 road games. We put our kids on the bus and they’ll go anywhere to play softball.”
They’ll face a program that they last met in the 2010 semifinals. Somerset finished in the middle of the pack this season in the Laurel Highlands Conference.
“We were really impressed by Somerset when they came up here in 2010,” Kohlhepp said. “We only beat them 2-0. They had a bunch of good kids in the lineup and we certainly felt they were building a strong program down there.”
Somerset is led by pitcher Maddie Ream, who is also one of the team’s top hitters. Syd Geary also wields a big stick and is used as a relief pitcher.
“They swing the bat well,” Kohlhepp said of the Lady Eagles. “They have a pitcher that can throw strikes and moves the ball around. We’re just going to have to play Bellefonte softball and see what we can do when we can get down there.”
Bellefonte brings in a mix of experience and youth.
Shortstop Erica DeVinney, who packs pop in the No. 3 spot, helped the Lady Raiders win the 2009 PIAA title. Catcher Vanessa Cooper, who belted two long home runs in last year’s district title win over Huntingdon, has tremendous power. During the regular season, several teams chose to walk Cooper, who is now hitting leadoff, rather than pitch to her.
“We do have a nice blend of new faces to the playoff world, plus the experienced players who have come back from the past couple of years,” Kohlhepp said. “There’s no complacency because they’re hungry for it and understand what it takes.”
One of the key new faces is pitcher Stevi Confer. In her first season as a starter Confer (10-5) has been the winning pitcher in every Bellefonte victory.
“She has done a nice job,” Kohlhepp said. “She has been able execute and come up with big pitches at big times. ... She does a nice job of working to her strengths and doing what she does best. She’s mentally strong, tough and able to take the hits that come with being a pitcher.”
Despite an up-and-down regular season, Kohlhepp believes his team has the talent to grab another district title.
“They’re wonderful kids to work with,” he said. “They’re very coachable. We’re able to work with them and get them to do what we need them to do. That helps us because put them in positions where they can hopefully relax and be successful.”