BEA softball’s Don Lucas reflects on 2019 season, future
Several Bald Eagle Area players wiped tears from their eyes Friday afternoon while their softball coach draped silver medals around their necks. Some hugged; others stared at the infield dirt.
This — a runner-up finish in the PIAA Class 3A Softball Championship — wasn’t what they wanted. And no matter how much they accomplished, or how much they exceeded preseason expectations, silver was no substitute for gold.
But, if they would’ve looked a few feet behind them, they might’ve found a reason to smile — or at least a reason for optimism.
On the other side of Penn State’s Beard field, during the postgame awards ceremony, Pine Grove coach Ryan Leffler could sympathize with the girls in the blue-and-gold uniforms. Sure, his team had just won 7-3 to complete a perfect 27-0 season — but, two years ago, he and his girls were standing in the same spot as BEA. And he couldn’t help but see the parallels.
“They truly remind me of my 2017 team,” Leffler said. “I’m sure they’re going to be back next year and be a tough one.”
In 2017, Pine Grove stunned its district by taking an underclassmen-heavy roster into the state finals. The Cardinals had just two seniors and three juniors on their roster, and they finished as the state runner-up to South Park.
Two years later, that young roster grew into a near-unstoppable force. They set school records in runs and hits and, with 10 seniors, they beat BEA to win the state title.
How similar was 2017 Pine Grove to 2019 Bald Eagle Area? The Lady Eagles have one senior and four juniors on their roster, the same number of upperclassmen as 2017 PGA.
“Yeah, it does remind me of us,” BEA DH Maralee Caldana said. “We have the talent; we have what it takes. I just hope we can pull it out next year.”
On Thursday, in BEA’s high school gym, three different Lady Eagles said they never would’ve believed — back in the preseason — that they would’ve made it this far. “I probably would’ve laughed,” pitcher Madison Peters said, if you would’ve told her in March they’d be in the state championship.
But this team grew up in a hurry. For the first time in a long time, coach Don Lucas said he could sense that practice wasn’t just a routine for them — his girls truly bought into treating every practice as an opportunity to get better. And they did.
Their first loss came against Philipsburg-Osceola, but they proved to be a resilient bunch. They won their next two against the Lady Mounties. In the PIAA semifinals, even when the opposing pitcher had a perfect game heading into the final frame, BEA clawed back to win 1-0 on a walk-off hit by a freshman.
Plenty of young girls stepped up to make this season a memorable one. (Two thirds of the starting lineup consists of freshmen and sophomores, after all.) So members of Pine Grove’s team nodded when asked if they saw similarities between their 2017 selves and 2019 BEA.
“In 2017, we fell short and we knew we had to work really hard to get back,” Pine Grove shortstop Katelyn Rittenbaugh said. “So we never gave up, and it helped us grow. ... Just don’t give up and work hard every day. Make it back.”
BEA second baseman Kaleigh Kinley, the team’s lone senior, said she never would’ve guessed her last game would’ve been played at Penn State for the state championship. Through a pained smile, she called it a pleasant surprise. And even if she won’t be a part of BEA’s future plans, she still left the team better than she found it.
In 2017, Pine Grove lost the state title, but their community expected big things in the near future, and they delivered Friday. In 2019, Bald Eagle Area lost the state title — and Kinley’s hoping that delivery comes a little earlier.
“I expect them to be back here — but win it next year,” Kinley said. “I’m excited for them for the next few seasons.”