The highlighter-yellow softball contrasted sharply with the pale blue sky as it rocketed off Ashley Struble’s bat in the first inning and headed toward familiar faces in right field.
The junior burst out of the box, but had no clue she had just struck the first blow in Penns Valley’s 8-2 upset over Central in Thursday’s first round of the District 6 AA playoffs.
“I wasn’t too sure,” Struble said. “But when I rounded first I saw it hit out there right beside my parents and I was all excited and had a big smile on my face.”
Struble’s leadoff home run seemed to give the No. 13-seeded Lady Rams confidence against the No. 4 Lady Dragons, who had defeated them twice soundly earlier this season.
If Struble (3-for-4, three RBIs) authored the Rams’ opening volley, her teammates certainly continued the assault as the Rams dominated on offense and defense from nearly start to finish.
Senior Madisyn Sharer went 4-for-4 and scored twice. Sophomore Kylee Wasson went 2-for-4 and also drove in three runs. Penns Valley piled up 14 hits.
After Morgan Royer (1-for-2, two RBIs) and Nicole Harbaugh (1-for-4) each singled in the second, Struble was at it again with a double to right that scored both and gave Penns Valley a 3-0 lead.
The Rams added two more in the third after Royer and Wasson each drove in a run.
The Dragons would eventually score twice in the fourth, but the Rams answered quickly with three more in the fifth.
“We got that leadoff home run and that kind of set the tone for the game,” said head coach Don Lucas. “We just hit the heck out of the ball.”
That wasn’t the case earlier this season when Central pummeled the Rams 4-0 and 13-3. Back then the Dragons offense was effective against Maggie Lynch (10-9), who lost both games. This time, however she was ready.
The senior pitched all seven and gave up two runs on just four hits, two walks and three strikeouts. Lynch placed pitches on the corners and changed speeds to keep batters guessing.
“She kept them off stride, off balance and they could never really settle in,” Lucas said.
The strategy was clearly to work around Central’s slugger Taylor McKnight, who launched three home runs off Lynch in their second meeting this season. Lynch walked McKnight the first two times they faced. And without its star hitter, Central’s offense looked pedestrian.
“We just didn’t hit very well today and I would say that was the biggest difference from the other two games,” said Central head coach Dale Walters.
Lynch allowed a single in the first inning but didn’t surrender another hit until the fourth. Even when the Dragons hit balls hard it seemed a Ram was always there to make the catch.
Mackenzie Ironside made a difficult play look easy in the third when she broke quickly after Marissa Snyder smashed a ball to the gap in right-center. Snyder, who had two of the four Dragons’ hits, walked back to her dugout with her hands raised in disbelief.
Wasson also made two nice plays in left.
“It deflates the other team when they hit shots that you make plays on,” Lucas said. “It kind of takes air out of their balloon.”
Last season, Penns Valley also played the spoiler. The No. 15 Rams beat No. 2 Richland in the first round.
However, Lucas focused his attention on this year’s team. “It’s a big win for the three seniors,” Lucas said.
At a team meeting the night before, Lucas said the seniors told teammates they weren’t ready for their careers to end.
The 13-year coach has been asking his team a simple question this season. It’s one that Struble, just a junior, answered with a pen and her bat.
“Are we pretenders, or contenders?”
Struble wrote “contenders” on her wrist before the game.
The question will have to be answered in Round 2 when Penns Valley travels to fifth-seeded Bellwood-Antis on Monday at 4 p.m. Bellwood-Antis defeated Westmont Hilltop 3-1.