Several years ago, I marveled at the multitude of cars that were lined up, still trying to to get into Hess Field one sunny afternoon.
Philipsburg-Osceola and Bald Eagle Area were playing for the District 6 Class AA softball title that day. And three innings into the game, the cars were still trying to gain admission for the contest between the fiercest of Centre County rivals.
Back then, it was winner take all for a berth in the PIAA playoffs. And, usually that winner had a good shot at capturing a state title. Between 2004 and 2011, the two schools made seven PIAA finals and brought home the trophy four times.
Flash forward to Wednesday night. Call it back to the future.
For the first time since 2010, the two schools met in the district title game.
And once again, it delivered on several fronts.
Whether the folks at District 6 will admit it or not, this was the game that the league had been looking for since Nittany Lion Softball Park became the site of the championship in 2011. It brought two of the most passionate local fan bases to the beautiful park.
And those fans delivered.
Tournament officials — in a great call — delayed the start of the contest because there were still hundreds of people in line at the ticket booth. Of the day's paid attendance of 1,949 for four games, 1,100 were packed into the park for this one. That’s standing room only since the joint has 1,084 seats.
The crowd featured several Bellefonte players and coaches, who had left after winning the Distirict 6 Class AAA title in the first game of the day, and had come back to the park to see the rubber match between their Mountain League rivals. They sat right behind home plate, showing no outward allegiance to either side.
Several current and future District 6 Softball Hall of Fame members also were in attendance as well.
Once the game got close, the fans on both sides provided the kind of atmosphere worthy of a title game.
They hung on every pitch, often screaming their approval or disapproval. They chanted before the innings.
And the two teams delivered the drama.
They set the stage in the regular season. Philipsburg-Osceola won the first matchup 3-2 in Milesburg. Bald Eagle Area returned the favor, clinching the Mountain League title 4-3 at Curtis Park.
The rubber match figured to be a close one.
It didn’t look that way early. P-O raced to a 4-0 lead after three innings, looking every bit like the four-time defending champions they were and like the team that had dispatched three postseason foes by a combined score of 29-1.
But as they have all postseason, the Lady Eagles fought back. They had trailed by three runs to Penns Valley in a 10-3 opening round win. They were down 6-4 in the seventh before rallying to a 7-6 triumph in eight innings against Bellwood-Antis in the quarterfinals.
The four-run deficit was the biggest they had faced and they had just one hit through four innings, but a run in the fifth and three more in the sixth tied it.
In the end, a pair of freshmen and a senior were the heroes for the Lady Eagles. Freshman Olivia Andrews doubled and eventually scored on classmate Moreta Dyke’s RBI single. And senior Makennah Dyke closed it out, getting three groundouts as she held the powerful P-O lineup scoreless over the final five innings.
The No. 6, 7, 8 and 9 batters are supposed to be a team’s weakest hitters, but Andrews, Makenzie Proctor, Moreta Dyke and Morgan Nyman provided seven hits and drove in all five BEA runs.
It wasn’t all offense. Both teams flashed some leather.
BEA shortstop Haley Giedroc saved at least a pair of runs. Her diving stop of a Chelsey Henry single ticketed for left field kept a P-O baseunner at third in the fifth inning. Her diving stop of a throw that got away on a delayed steal of third base also prevented the ball from going into left field in trhe seventh. First baseman Moreta Dyke also stopped a hot shot to strand three runners in the fifth.
And of course, P-O turned a triple play in the eighth. Lady Mountie coach Jim Gonder couldn’t recall one of those in his 31 seasons, which encompasses more than 700 games as head coach.
Both schools deservedly are heading to the PIAAs and if things break right they actually could meet again in the semifinals.
And with each team losing just two seniors, the prospects of another District 6 classic in future seasons aren’t out of the realms of possibility, although those district waters are fraught with danger.
But for at least one night, the softball gods provided something special.
Both coaches agree on that.
“It was a pretty neat atmosphere tonight and we were very lucky to be playing in that kind of atmosphere,” Gonder said.
“It’s really good for this area, it really is,” added BEA’s Curt Hverly. “This was incredible.”
Way back on April 22nd, I witnessed an act of sportsmanship that you don’t often see these days, something that needed to be noted.
The situation was this.
Penns Valley senior Ashley Struble had just belted home run in the bottom of the eighth inning to give the Lady Rams a dramatic 4-3 victory over Bellefonte.
After the disappointed Lady Red Raiders broke their postgame huddle, senior Vanessa Cooper made a beeline for the Penns Valley dugout.
Cooper, not always an opponent’s fan favorite because of her fiery competitiveness on the field, showed her class off of the diamond.
“Hey, Struble,” Cooper called out. “It’s been a pleasure to play against you the last four years. Great job.”
Both players then wished each other luck.
“I have all of the respected in the world for her,” Cooper said Wednesday when asked about the exchange. “I respect good hitters. She’s a tough ballplayer.”