With two outs in the bottom of the final frame, one of State College softball’s assistants shouted to his pitcher: “Hey Em, give me a smile!”
Even beneath a facemask, sophomore Emma Wolfe grinned so wide that her smile was evident from 30 yards away. “There you go!” the assistant shouted back.
Wolfe couldn’t stop smiling after that, striking out the final batter and jogging off the mound to high-five her coaches and teammates after the Lady Little Lions’ 3-0 win Monday over Altoona in the first round of the district playoffs. Both the assistant coach, Steve Shedlock, and head coach Jim Schaper didn’t hesitate when calling it her best outing of the season.
“Without a doubt, without a doubt,” Schaper repeated. “She’s finally healthy, she’s got confidence behind her, and everyone is embracing her as the No. 1 starter.”
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With the win, No. 3-seed State College advances to the District 6 Class 6A championship against top-seed Mifflin County. They’ll play Wednesday at Nittany Lion Softball Park.
The Lady Little Lions can thank Wolfe in large part for the title shot. She battled back from a tough first inning and finished with seven strikeouts and six walks while allowing just two hits. It was her first complete game shutout of the season.
“It feels really good to bring the team back to where they were last season,” Wolfe said. “Hopefully, we can take it even further.”
Before every pitch, Wolfe dug her heel into the dirt like a bull getting ready to charge. She didn’t overwhelm Altoona with power, but her finesse pitches kept the Mountain Lions guessing. Her fastball was there when she needed to hit the zone — and Altoona just couldn’t figure it out.
Over the last five innings, Wolfe faced just 17 batters.
“She pitches strikes, and we have trouble waiting long enough to hit it,” Altoona coach Beth Campbell said. “So, she’s very effective if you can’t wait — so give her all the credit. She put it where they were calling it, and I thought she did a great job.”
At the plate, Wolfe received run support early as State College scored all three runs in the first two innings. Senior Kayla Hawbaker smacked a leadoff triple and, two batters later, fellow senior Avery Cymbor drove her in with a double to right-center.
In the second, with two Lady Little Lions on base, Ainsley Shedlock placed a perfect bunt between the pitcher and first baseman to knock in a run. And Hawbaker drove in another run right after Shedlock. That entailed all of the game’s scoring.
But that didn’t mean Wolfe cruised to an easy win. In the first inning, after walking three straight batters with one out, it seemed as if she was on her way to a brief pitching appearance.
After the early hiccups, she took a few deep breaths, met with her coach in the circle and didn’t catch a hint of nervousness from her catcher. She forced the next girl to pop out and, with a 3-1 count on the next batter, struck her out swinging.
“When she struck that girl out, it was big because it put a big zero up on them in the first inning, which is a big achievement for us because of the way those first innings have gone this season,” said Hawbaker, who finished with a game-high three hits.
Added Schaper: “That’s the ball game right there in the first inning. Seriously.”
Wolfe only got stronger as the game wore on. After a 24-pitch first inning, Altoona’s coach gathered her team around and told them they’d tire Wolfe out, that the scoreless first inning wasn’t in vain.
But on a cool 70-degree day in Altoona, with fans relaxing in camping chairs near first base and the outfield, Wolfe barely broke a sweat.
Instead, in that final frame, she just broke out into a big smile.
“She’s showing that mental composure,” assistant Steve Shedlock said. “She’s starting to have some fun; she’s smiling.”