Bald Eagle Area softball players are pretty blunt about how important a win today is in the District 6 Class AA semifinals.
A triumph at top-seeded Penn Cambria (19-0) guarantees the No. 4 Lady Eagles (17-4) their first berth in the PIAA tournament since 2009 and would advance them to their first district championship since 2010.
“It means everything,” designated player Makenzie Proctor said following BEA’s dramatic 7-6 quarterfinal win over Bellwood-Antis in eight innings. “We know we’re that good. We’ve shown it on the field and off the field at practice. It’s thrilling to have a chance.”
No. 2 Philipsburg-Osceola (18-4) hasn’t suffered that kind of drought and will be looking for its fifth consecutive trip to the PIAAs with a win over visiting Blairsville (16-2).
Thanks to rainy weather Wednesday, the Class AA games are part of a busy Thursday for Centre County softball teams. Bellefonte (11-8) hosts Hollidaysburg (9-10) in a Class AAA semifinal and State College (11-9) travels to Mifflin County (15-5) in a Class AAAA semifinal. All of the games start at 4 p.m.
For the Lady Eagles to advance, they’re going to have to travel to Cresson and knock off Penn Cambria, something no opponent has done in 19 tries.
A big reason why the Lady Panthers are unbeaten is Kelly Yusko. The senior pitcher is 18-0, including a 10-0 quarterfinal shutout of Westmont-Hilltop. Yusko allowed four hits and struck out 10 in the five-inning romp, bringing her season total to 159 strikeouts and her career total to 443.
Yusko may be the best pitcher the Lady Eagles have seen this season. The right-hander, an all-state selection last spring, throws a fastball in the high 50’s and is effective with her curve, screwball and change-up.
Yusko is also Penn Cambria’s biggest threat at the plate. The senior blasted a homer, double and single in three at-bats Monday. Her two-run homer, a 230-foot shot to dead center, highlighted a four-run first inning and was the first blast to clear the fence on Penn Cambria’s reconfigured field.
Katie Little and Caitlyn Sheehan also are a big part of a potent lineup.
BEA players know they will face a stiff challenge.
“We’re coming in hard and giving it our all,” said Olivia Andrews, who drove in the game-winning against Bellwood-Antis.
The Lady Eagles, the Mountain League champions, have shown resilience in the postseason. They’ve trailed by at least two runs in each of their postseason games, but have rallied from those deficits.
Curt Heverly, who is coaching the team for the first season since his long stint ended in 2003, is proud of his team.
“Think about where this program has been the last year,” he said. “All of a sudden they hire a big, fat coach that’s old and gray and was a mean guy when he took over before. All of a sudden, things are working and doing well. I’m so happy for them.
“They’ve got to be ready for anything,” he said. “Sometimes I get a little gruff, but they’ve responded and they’re playing well.”
Seven different Lady Eagles have driven in runs in two postseason wins and their speed and aggressiveness on the bases has been pivotal.
Makennah Dyke (11-3) will start for the Eagles. She’s also driven in a team-high six runs in the playoffs.
Blairsville at Philipsburg-Osceola
After a late-season swoon, Philipsburg-Osceola has been its usual dominant self in the postseason, having outscored its two opponents 19-1.
What’s the difference?
Having Abby Showers back in the field certainly helps. The all-state shortstop is still nursing a sore arm, but is playing third base.
“Obviously getting Abby back has helped,” said P-O coach Jim Gonder. “She’s a heck-of-a defensive player. Being able to put people in their more natural positions has helped us a lot.”
Gonder also juggled his lineup before the postseason. He moved Showers from cleanup to leadoff and Haylee Hayward from leadoff to cleanup. Showers (5 for 8) and Hayward (4 for 5) are hot and they sandwich heavy-hitting Haley Frank (.506) and Kenzie Burge (.567).
“I looked at the statistics and Haylee had a great average with runners in scoring position,” Gonder said. “That was a no-brainer and Abby has speed and can see the ball more frequently and for more strikes.”
Gonder’s club also has been buoyed by the pitching and hitting of Chelsey Henry. In her first postseason in the circle, Henry has scattered 11 hits. She’s also smoking at the plate, going 5 for 6 with four RBIs.
“She’s picked it up and she’s hitting the heck out of the ball for us,” Gonder said.
The third time was a charm for Blairsville, which avenged two regular-season losses to Marion Center with a 4-1 quarterfinal win on Monday. The Lady Bobcats are a combination of players from Blairsville and Saltsburg high schools.
Emilie Okopal fired a two-hitter, striking out 10 and walking two. Shelby Oswald had three hits and Abbie Okopal had two in the win. Emily Okopal also is a dangerous hitter.
“They’ve got some good pitching,” said Gonder. “They’ve got some good hitters and play good defense. At this point, that’s going to be the MO of every team. Hopefully, we match up well.”
Gonder said his team, which advanced to the PIAA semifinals last season, is well aware of the importance of the clash.
“One of the things you keep telling your kids is, ‘If you win tomorrow, you’re guaranteed two more games.’ That’s a big motivator and I hope the kids respond.”