Philipsburg-Osceola softball coach Jim Gonder left his usual spot in the third base coaches’ box for the other side of the diamond in the fourth inning.
After seeing Riverside’s Kirsten Wilson strike out seven batters in the first three innings of Tuesday’s PIAA Class AA semifinal, Gonder was willing to try the perspective from the first base box to try to change the Lady Mounties’ fortunes.
“I was just trying to shake it up a little bit,” Gonder chuckled. “Maybe some of them saw me down there and wondered what the hell I was going on. If I could have done a cartwheel and it changed something, I would have done that, too.”
Alas for the Lady Mounties, nothing could help them with Wilson on Tuesday.
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Wilson fired a no-hitter and struck out 15 as Riverside stopped the Lady Mounties 2-0 at the Harry Noerr Complex. Natalie Pitts’ two-run single in the fifth inning provided the only scoring as Wilson outdueled the Lady Mounties’ Kate Burge, who tossed a seven-hitter.
Philipsburg-Osceola (23-2) carried a .369 team average into the contest and had scored at least three runs in every game this season.
Then came Wilson, an imposing 5-foot-10 right-hander, who struck out multiple batters in six of seven innings.
“Unfortunately, we just ran into a buzzsaw,” Gonder said.
Wilson dominated from start to finish in the nail-biter, striking out every Lady Mountie at least once. The only P-O runners to reach base came via four walks, a hit batter and an error and no Lady Mountie advanced past first.
“She’s been throwing like that all year,” Riverside coach Pam McCarty said. “She’s phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal.”
Burge was pretty good, too. The P-O senior right-hander struck out four over the first three innings and kept the WPIAL champions (22-0) off the board until the fifth.
That’s where one chink in the armor and a key hit from Pritts made the difference.
Burge walked No. 8 hitter Cassie Barker, who was sacrificed to second. Logan Snyder then drew a one-out walk. Burge fanned Brooke Barker, but that brought up Wilson, a better than .500 hitter who had smacked two line-drive singles in her first two plate appearances.
Gonder elected to intentionally walk Wilson to load the bases and Pritts (0-for-2 with a strikeout) delivered. Pritts lined a 1-1 pitch up the middle that easily scored two runs.
It wasn’t the first time that Pritts, a better than .450 hitter, had seen an opponent walk Wilson this season.
“I’ve been in that situation before so I knew I had to pull through,” she said. “... I kind of take it as an insult. It fires me up more. I was pretty excited for the opportunity.”
Gonder, who has employed the strategy often over his long career, said the move to walk Wilson was the correct one.
“I think any coach in Pennsylvania who has played them will tell you, ‘Don’t let her beat you,’” he said. “Whether they score one run in that situation with her getting a hit or more or you walk her. I realize you’ve got a runner at third base now, too, and that single drove in two. But, I’m not sure one or two made much difference at that point.”
“I’m not second-guessing,” he added. “I’ll be able to sleep tonight very well. If tomorrow the same thing happens, I’m doing the same thing.”
Both players and coaches said the game had the feel that whoever scored first was going to win.
“When you have two really good teams, it’s all about who can get on the board first,” P-O shortstop Abby Showers said. “It’s tough when you have a pitcher that throws rises and throws about 58 mph. It’s hard to get a jump on it.”
“With four left in the state, if someone scores one run they’re going to move on,” said Burge, who struck out eight and walked four. “... It’s so hard to get runs with the top four. If you get one and you have solid defense behind you and solid pitching, it’s hard for teams to score on you.”
P-O did get a baserunners in six of the seven innings against Wilson, but the Lady Panther pitcher was just too much. With a runner on, Wilson ended the contest with a pair of strikeouts.
“She had a great riseball, moved the ball in the strike zone, was in command of her pitches and threw hard,” Gonder said of Wilson. “I’m not sure what she was clocked at but she’s got to be 60-plus. You just don’t see that a lot in (Class) AA softball.”
Wilson and Nicole Mansfield each had two hits for Riverside, which will face Brandywine Heights in the PIAA title game at 10 a.m. Friday at Nittany Lion Softball Park.
“I hope they win it all,” Burge said of Riverside, which has never won a state title. “It always sucks losing to a team, but you always hope the team that you lose to goes and wins it because you know they were good.”
Tears flowed as P-O said good-byes to seniors Burge, Carly Gonder, Aisha Goss and McKayla Myers. All four were a part of the 2011 PIAA title team. For their four-year careers, they also were part of four Mountain League and District 6 championships, a PIAA runner-up finish and a loss to eventual champion Neshannock in last season’s PIAA playoffs.
“You don’t replace kids like that,” Jim Gonder said. “You just hope some kids step up and hopefully the underclassmen learned from what they showed them.”
“Just thinking I’ll never play another game of softball with them again just kills me,” said Showers, a sophomore. “When we come to softball, it’s not, ‘Hey, it’s softball practice.’ It’s, “Hey, it’s family and bonding time and time to get better. ... When you have four good players leave, it’s so hard to fill those positions. Their shoes are just so big.”
Burge, who hope to play at Penn State Altoona, said she will miss her fellow seniors, especially batterymate Carly Gonder, who will attend college at West Virginia.
“She was my catcher since third grade,” Burge said with a cracking voice. “That’s what sucks the most because she is going so far away. I always joked around saying I was going to steal her and bring her to Penn State Altoona with me.”