Penns Valley softball coach Tessa Deardorff passed around sheets of paper and pens at a preseason practice in early March and asked her players to write down two goals — one personal, one team — for the upcoming 2019 season. Two months later, freshman outfielder Avelyn Van Heyst smiled when asked what she wrote.
“I wanted to start,” Van Heyst said, shaking her head. “And I wanted us to make it to districts, possibly states.”
Well, the Lady Rams made it to districts, and Van Heyst is doing more than just starting. Van Heyst, shortstop Kendra Bumgardner, first baseman Allison O’Brien and outfielder Kailen Winkelblech make up a core of underclassmen that has driven Penns Valley to this point — that has made a run to states possible.
The Lady Rams (11-9) face Chestnut Ridge on Monday for a spot in the District 6 Class 3A semifinals. If there were a betting market for high school softball, the Lady Lions would be heavy favorites after recently concluding a 17-game winning streak. But Van Heyst is confident.
“I’m not worried about it,” she said Thursday. “And I don’t think any of these girls are, either.”
Penns Valley’s primary reason for optimism? The freshman duo of Winkelblech and Van Heyst, and the sophomore tandem of Bumgardner and O’Brien.
Winkelblech and Van Heyst hit fourth and fifth in Deardorff’s lineup, respectively — a significant responsibility for a pair of rookies. But they’ve produced. Van Heyst owns a .304 average and has worked 10 walks. Winkelblech’s 10 doubles are tops on the team, while her .400 batting average and 18 RBIs are tied for first.
Winkelblech actually started the season batting eighth in the order, something Deardorff can only laugh about now. The freshman proved she belonged higher in the lineup from the get-go, belting a home run over Penns Valley’s left-center wall in her first-ever varsity at-bat.
Looking back on that now, Winkelblech can still remember assistant coach Terrence Green yelling in celebration. She can still picture the umpire twirling his finger to signal a dinger. She can still see her teammates crowding home plate, awaiting her arrival. It was a season-defining moment for the freshman.
“We were like, ‘All right, all right,’” Deardorff said nodding her head. Winkelblech was moved to the No. 4 spot two games later, something that took her by surprise. “Coach read off the order before the game, and at first I didn’t really hear her,” Winkelblech said, hiding a grin. “But when it set in, I was like, ‘Oh my God.’”
She hasn’t moved from clean-up since, hitting behind Bumgardner — who’s having a stellar season of her own. The sophomore boasts a .394 batting average, is tied for the team lead in hits and has struck out only five times, the fewest times among the Lady Rams with at least 40 plate appearances.
Bumgardner puts the ball in play. So does O’Brien, who turns over the order at ninth. The sophomore’s five home runs lead the Lady Rams, and her .373 average isn’t shabby, either.
The success of O’Brien, Bumgardner, Van Heyst and Winkelblech has been sustained over the course of Penns Valley’s 20-game regular season. But the freshmen and sophomores showed up especially when the Lady Rams needed them most.
Penns Valley squeezed into districts as the eighth and final seed, beating out out Forest Hills and Bedford, thanks in large part to a four-game winning streak from May 3-9. The Lady Rams defeated Midd-West by nine runs, edged West Branch in nine innings, handled Huntingdon and toppled Mountain League runner-up Philipsburg-Osceola.
In that four-game winning streak, the quartet of Bumgardner, O’Brien, Winkelblech and Van Heyst hit .377 (20 of 53).
“We saw the postseason with our eyes,” O’Brien said of the team’s mindset entering that four-game stretch. “We saw that with our chemistry, with the girls who came up, with our determination to get to the postseason — that carried us. We never let the energy drop.”
Added Deardorff: “Those four last week were crucial. They were make or break.”
Now, Penns Valley is off to districts, where the Lady Rams are “in it to win it,” according to Bumgardner. But even if Deardorff’s club doesn’t best Chestnut Ridge — even if the Lady Rams don’t reach the PIAA tournament — the coach has a core to build around in Bumgardner, O’Brien, Van Heyst and Winkelblech.
Deardorff made sure to mention her current seniors when asked about the future. Penns Valley would be watching districts from afar if not for Caroline Collison, Devan Stoner and Morgan Hurd, as well as productive juniors like Kaylah Thompson, Ryah Thompson and Ryleigh Cain.
But Deardorff is “definitely excited” for 2020 and beyond. And so are the underclassmen who have an opportunity to take Penns Valley to new heights.
“As we grow up to be juniors and seniors, it’s going to help shape the team,” Van Heyst said. “There are girls this year who are juniors and seniors who are keeping the team together. There’s a lot of pressure to live up to what they’re doing. But I think we’re capable of it.”