Three-time defending District 6 Class AA champion Philipsburg-Osceola doesn’t have the easiest road to another crown this season. The consensus opinion among several coaches is that the Lady Mounties’ side of the bracket is the tougher of the two, heading into the tournament openers today.
P-O coach Jim Gonder, who has taken his squad to two PIAA titles and a runner-up finish in the last six years, says his club isn’t about to worry about the draw.
“You’ve got to play those teams at some point. There’s no use complaining. It’s just what it is. We’re going to go out there and do our best.”
The top-seeded Lady Mounties (17-1) are one of three area squads in action today as the Class AA Tournament kicks off. P-O hosts No. 16 Bishop McCort, while No. 7 Bald Eagle Area (13-7) entertains No. 10 Ligonier Valley (13-3) and No. 13 Penns Valley (9-10) travels to No. 4 Central (15-4). All of the games start at 4 p.m.
Philipsburg-Osceola enters Thursday’s contest with an 11-game winning streak. The Lady Mounties have scored double digits in seven of those wins and senior starter Kate Burge (14-0) has yet to lose a game this season.
“They’re playing real well,” Gonder said of his club. “The pitching has been pretty solid. We’ve hit the ball really well so far. Defensively, we’re playing pretty good right now. I hope we keep getting better and we make a run at it.”
Gonder made a mid-season adjustment to his order, dropping his niece Carly Gonder from the leadoff spot to No. 7 in the lineup and moving up Haley Frank. He also pushed Kate Burge to No. 2, put Abby Showers in the cleanup spot and moved freshman standout Haylee Hayward to the No. 5 spot. All of the juggling seems to have worked well.
“We’re scoring runs,” Jim Gonder said. “Carly was struggling a little bit early. Since that switch, she’s probably raised her batting average a couple of hundred points. The change definitely worked for her and it put us in a pretty good situation from top to bottom.”
While there are some new faces, the bulk of the lineup remains the same from last year’s squad, which fell 5-3 in eight innings to eventual champion Neshannock in the opening round of the PIAA Tournament.
Gonder likes the makeup of his squad.
“Our seniors have done a good job at being good leaders and keeping everyone going in the same direction,” he said. “The kids have all bought into our program and buy into what we’re doing. The young kids have been producing well for us and seem to be pretty confident right now. I’m looking forward to us hopefully doing well.”
Bishop McCort enters the contest having lost three of its last four and not having played since a 6-0 loss to Richland on May 7.
The Crimson Crushers are led by senior third baseman Emily Daley, who is hitting .469 on the season. Ricki Conrad, who has done the bulk of the pitching, is 3-9.
Gonder admits he doesn’t know much about Bishop McCort.
“If we play our game, we feel pretty confident,” he said.
Ligonier Valley at Bald Eagle Area
For the third consecutive season, the Lady Eagles will face Ligonier Valley in the District playoffs.
“I about died when I saw the bracket,” BEA coach Kayleen Sidisky. “At least this year, we get them at our place. That makes me feel a little bit better.”
The Lady Rams took a second-round game in 2011 and BEA pulled off a stunning 7-6 victory at Ligonier Valley last season. The Lady Eagles trailed 5-0 heading into the seventh inning, but rallied for seven runs and held off the Lady Rams’ comeback attempt in the bottom of the inning.
“I still can’t believe how that transpired,” Sidisky said. “Hopefully this year, we won’t have to wait until the seventh inning to get some offense going and we can attack early.”
Having seen the Lady Rams, especially their standout shortstop Maddy Grimm, over the past two seasons helps Sidisky. Grimm, also standout in soccer and basketball and who kicked for the football team, is arguably the best all-around girls’ athlete in the state. She’s headed to Kent State on a softball scholarship.
Grimm has belted three home runs against BEA pitching, including two last season.
“I know Maddy Grimm and what she brings to the table,” Sidisky said. “Thankfully, she’s a senior. We know what to expect from them.”
Sidisky expects a good outing from Megan Dudish (12-4), who has two previous seasons of postseason experience.
“She’s ready,” Sidisky said of her ace right-hander. “She’s thrown great pretty much all year. I just expect her to go out there and do what she needs to do.”
She said her club is playing well, especially coming off of last Thursday’s 6-3 comeback win against Bellefonte.
“I think the last four or five innings against Bellefonte, we picked it up and played the way we needed to,” Sidisky said. “It was a good confidence booster to come back and beat a rival before the playoffs. We’ve finally got some practice in and that helps us a lot.”
Sidisky, whose club is in the bottom half of the bracket opposite of P-O, likes her team’s draw.
“I think we get to see some faces that we haven’t played yet,” she said. “ If we win this game, we get to play a bunch of teams that more than likely we haven’t seen all year.”
Beating the Lady Rams and Grimm won’t be easy. Ligonier Valley clinched its sixth consecutive Heritage Conference title by beating Blairsville 5-0 on Monday. Blairsville (13-2) is the No. 3 seed in the District 6 Tournament.
The speedy Grimm singled twice and scored on two squeeze plays. Hailey Umbaugh tossed a five-hit shutout.
Penns Valley at Central
Don Lucas and his Lady Rams know exactly what they’re getting by facing Central in the opening round. The District 6 runner-up last season beat Penns Valley 4-0 and 13-3 during the regular season.
“It’s not exactly a team you want to play in the first round, but somewhere down the line you know you’re going to run into them or Philipsburg since they’re both on the same side of the bracket,” Lucas said. “That’s crazy because they’re probably the two best teams in District 6 and on the same side of the bracket. That’s a shame.”
The Lady Dragons feature one of the most dynamic players in the area in Taylor McKnight. The shortstop belted three homers in the second meeting with the Lady Rams. Starter Kylie Gunnett owns a pair of wins over Penns Valley, including a two-hitter in the season-opener.
“Central has an outstanding team,” Lucas said “They’re solid No. 1 through No. 9. They have pretty good pitching and McKnight is a very talented young lady. She hits the ball very well.”
That being said, Lucas isn’t looking for his club to be an easy out for the Lady Dragons and history is on his side. Last season, the Lady Rams buried second-seeded Richland 13-3 in the opening round.
“Mentally, you have to look at that as an advantage,” he said. “We went out there at second seed Richland and we were a 15 and did a real nice job. We have to take that kind of mindset and go to Central and to the same thing.
“We’re going to have to go out there and play well. It’s the luck of the draw. For us, it presents a challenge, but that’s what you want. That’s what you play for all year --- the opportunity to play games like this.”
Lucas said his team has gotten solid pitching from Maggie Lynch and has played excellent defense this season. The hitting has been a lot more sporadic.
“We’ve played really nice games this year and fell short, just didn’t hit the ball soon enough,” he said. “ Defensively we’ve played well all year. We just did not give Lynch a lot of offensive support. It got better as the year progressed. Hopefully, we’ll continue to improve and go up there and get the job done. It’s a new season.”
In the season opener, his club gave up three unearned runs in the 4-0 loss to Central and looks at the 13-3 contest as a one of those tough days.
“The second time around, they just had their hitting shoes on,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you pitch, they just seemed to get the bat on the ball. That doesn’t happen day-in and day-out.”
The Lady Rams did hit Gunnett, who struck out 12 in the season opener, much better the second time around.
“She’s not going to surprise us with anything,” Lucas said.