High School Sports

South Park, pitcher Justine Dean relish in school’s first-ever trip to state title game


South Park had Philipsburg-Osceola down to its last out in the top of the seventh inning when pitcher Justine Dean called for a conference in the circle.

The Eagles were on the outskirts of uncharted territory and Dean, the only senior in the lineup, wanted to make sure they were all marching in step as they broke up the meeting.

“We talked about how we were so excited and how we wanted to get that last out,” she said.

They did, as Dean induced Sadie Granville to hit a routine grounder to third for the out that sealed a 4-0 win over Philipsburg-Osceola and sent South Park to the PIAA finals for the first time in the school’s history.

“It’s really exciting, going to the states for the first time,” Dean said. “It means a lot to me, especially since it’s my senior year.”

Dean remembers the last time she faced the Lady Mounties — although not fondly. P-O jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first inning when the two teams met in last year’s quarterfinals. And even though South Park rallied for a 16-12 win, the game won’t be on her highlight film.

“I didn’t pitch as well as I could in that game,’’ she said. “I’ve improved a lot since then. Now I know what to do in certain situations.’’

What she did Monday at the Mount Aloyisius diamond was limit P-O’s powerful lineup to three hits — two singles and a double — struck out three and hit Hannah Thompson twice. She didn’t walk a batter. And at the plate, she went 2 for 3 with a double and a run scored.

“She did what leaders do,” South Park coach Larry Mercurio said. “We knew they were a good hitting team, and we wanted to keep them off-balance. That game last year was tough. We had a lot of walks, a lot of errors and hit batters. They have a lot of strong kids on that team. That’s a very good team.’’

Dean said her game plan was to pitch away from P-O’s strength.

“I remember them from last year,” she said. “They have a lot of girls who can hit. And we wanted to pitch them inside because our coaches said they can really crush the outside pitch. And my change-up was working really well.”

Mercurio said Dean, who is going to Mercyhurst-North East, is a different pitcher than the one who faced P-O a year ago.

“She has really matured. She is able to hit her spots well now,” he added.

South Park lost to Deer Lakes in the WPIAL playoffs, so Mercurio had some idea of what to expect from P-O, which disposed of Deer Lakes in the quarterfinals.

“We had some information on them,” Mercurio said of the Mounties. “We knew what their first pitcher (Kam Harris) likes to throw. Plus, we shot ourselves in the foot against Deer Lakes. We had like five passed balls in that game.”

The Eagles had two errors against P-O but were able to keep them from costing any runs. And now they find themselves looking at the chance to do something their school has never done.

“This is great for our school,” Mercurio said. “And our baseball team is in the semifinals too. Wouldn’t it be cool if we both made it to the state finals?”