A month and a half is long time over the course of a softball season.
It’s been about that long since Bellefonte and Hollidaysburg met during the regular season.
The two teams, the lowest of the four seeds in the tournament, will meet at in the District 6 Class AAA title game at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at Penn State’s Nittany Lion Softball Park.
Hollidaysburg (10-9) won that initial matchup 3-2 on April 17, but Bellefonte coach Gregg Kohlhepp says his team (11-10) is a far cry now from the team that fell against the Lady Tigers that afternoon.
“Being able to put the pieces in place in terms of lineup, positions defensively and gaining experience for kids that were new to the varsity, having to go through the county games and some big (Class) AAAA games and now a round of playoffs, it has seasoned them a little bit,” Kohlhepp said. “I think they understand what it takes to step on the field and compete every single day.
“As a coaching staff, we’re really happy with the pieces we have and the way we look right now. That experience and being able to work together as a team has really come along. The kids see where the pieces are and what jobs they have to do and that makes a big difference.”
Despite having many new players, the third-seeded Lady Raiders have history on their side. Bellefonte is going for its 13th district crown in 14 seasons. Hollidaysburg, which moved down from Class AAAA, has not won a title over that time span and has not played at Penn State since the title games moved to Beard Field in 2011.
“You’d like to think that it gives us a comfort level that other teams may not have,” said Kohlhepp, whose club blanked Huntingdon 8-1 in last year’s final. “But again, it’s going to be a big stage, a big crowd. It’s going to be nerve-wracking for both teams. Again, this isn’t a team that’s greatly experienced. There’s going to be some moments out there. It’s how we react to adversity and we play through some of those moments. It’s not about making a mistake. It’s about what you do next in those situations.”
Kohlhepp was impressed by fourth-seeded Hollidaysburg, a program that is reviving under coach Dennis Carter. The Lady Golden Tigers showed some mettle in the semifinals. They blew a 3-0 lead by giving up seven runs in the fifth inning, but scored six in the top of the sixth to beat top-seeded Johnstown 9-7.
“They’re a dangerous club.” Kohlhepp said. “They bring a lot of experience back and certainly have played better and better over the years with this group of kids.”
Kohlhepp has nothing but praise for Hollidaysburg shortstop Hannah Mercer, a senior who had three hits, drove in three runs and made a sterling defensive play against Johnstown.
“She’s a great kid,” Kohlhepp said. “If she was playing in Centre County, there would be a lot more written about her. She’s truly one of those kids that you know where she’s at on the field. She made a great defensive stop up the middle against us last time that saved a run or two for them.
“I think she’s been one of the tougher outs that I’ve ever had to deal with,” he added. “… If you make a mistake with her either offensively or defensively, she’ll come up with the play.”
The Lady Red Raiders struggled against Hollidaysburg pitcher Alyssa Pheasant in the first meeting, managing just four hits against the sophomore right-hander.
“She did a real nice job,” Kohlhepp said. “She moved the ball around well on us. We were caught up a little bit by a few of her pitches. We’re hoping our preparation this time is a little more focused in terms of our approach at the plate. … She can make it real difficult on you. We’re going to have a good approach to her on every single pitch.”
Pheasant will have to deal with a Lady Red Raider lineup that thrived in a 10-3 romp over second-seeded Somerset in its playoff opener.
It starts with facing catcher Vanessa Cooper, who is not your typical leadoff hitter. Cooper is hitting better than .400 and has three homers, including one against Somerset. In last year’s title game, she belted two long blasts, one off the Penn State scoreboard, in the romp over Huntingdon. Because several teams are pitching around Cooper, her on-base percentage is well over .500.
“She does a nice job in the leadoff,” Kohlhepp said. “She’s on base over .500 and you’re getting her on hopefully a couple of times per game. You get to put speed on the bases with courtesy runners so that really helps and Vanessa’s up there a little bit more. The more the bat is in her hands, the more we’re a dangerous team.”
With a runner on base, Kohlhepp has plenty of options. No. 3 hitter Erica DeVinney is a proven commodity in big games and No. 5 hitter Carly Chambers has been swinging a big bat this season.