Just one win away Lady Barons advance to the State Triple-A finals
By: BRUCE MORGAN Record Express Sports Editor, Staff Writer
Katie VanBlargan never saw the ball leave the bat of Alexa Campbell in the bottom of the sixth inning.
"I wasn’t really watching — I was praying the whole time," the junior catcher laughed.
Turns out her prayers were answered, as Campbell’s pop-up to shallow left field was dropped by Valley View shortstop Liz Aniska with the bases loaded and two outs.
And when the ball fell to the turf, courtesy runner Megan Ebersole scampered home from third base with what turned out to be the game’s only run, enabling the Manheim Central girls to defeat Valley View 1-0 in the PIAA State Triple-A semi-finals at Allentown’s Patriot’s Park on Monday.
"I’ve aged a lot this season so far, but it’s been worth it," Manheim Central skipper Steve Ginder said. "It’s exhilirating is all I can say. It’s going to take awhile to sink in for this one."
With one more win, it will get even more exhilirating for Ginder and the Lady Barons (26-4), who have now gone 22-1 in their last 23 games. On Friday at 5 p.m. at Penn State University’s Nittany Lion Softball Park, the Manheim Central girls will meet District Seven third-place finisher Valley, a 1-0 winner over Bellefonte in the other semi-final, for the State Triple-A crown. They will be trying to win the L-L League’s first State gold since Donegal captured the Triple-A title in 2006.
"It means everything to me," VanBlargan remarked. "I feel like this is our year and we’re making history and it feels great."
The District Two champion Lady Cougars presented a daunting task for Manheim Central, having outscored their first two opponents in States by a margin of 25-2. But ace Campbell was on top of her game.
"I knew that they were going to be a strong hitting team, especially their one (Liz Aniska, .493 batting average) and three batters (Molly Ann Mecc, .439)," Campbell said, "so I was trying to work for contact and just trying to let my defense take care of it. That was really important to me."
Ginder, too, was confident in Campbell and the Lady Barons’ defense.
"We only gave 10 runs one time all season … we weren’t going to give up 10 runs," Ginder said. "I was confident in that. I knew we had the defense to keep it (close)."
He was right.
When the Lady Cougars put two runners on base in the top of the first, on Gabby Santarelli’s base hit and Molly Ann Mecca’s walk, VanBlargan threw out Santarelli attempting to steal third and Campbell coaxed an inning-ending fly out from Jacqui Rossi.
That was the only inning that Valley View had more than one base runner against Campbell, who scattered seven hits while brilliantly locating a nasty change-up to strike out six. The Lady Cougars didn’t have any runners advance past second base.
"I was hitting my spots with my (pitches) and I think they had a little bit more movement on them than they usually did," Campbell said.
"(Alexa) just knows how to place the ball," said VanBlargan, who threw out two attempted base stealers in the game. "She’s really been on fire lately. She’s hitting her spots."
In the second and third innings, Valley View’s Katie Iyoob (3-for-3) and Santarelli (2-for-3) connected for two-out doubles, but both were stranded on base.
Finally, Central put together the first real threat by either team in the bottom of the fourth, as Van Blargan (2-for-3), Aerika High (2-for-3) and Miranda Becker stroked consecutive base hits to load the bases with one out. But Lady Cougars’ pitcher Gina Chiefallo, who struck out six and yielded seven hits, got out of the jam with a K and a pop out to second base.
"After about the third inning, I thought this is going to be a one-run game and it came down to that," Ginder said. "Usually in big games like this, it’s who makes the error and it wasn’t us today."
VanBlargan certainly made no error in her at-bat leading off the bottom of the sixth. She fell into an 0-2 hole against Chiefallo, then fouled off three straight pitches.
"My dad and I have been practicing hitting … I’ve kinda been changing (my stance) all season trying to get it right," VanBlargan said. "It’s a work in progress, but I guess it worked for me tonight."
Finally, she got an 0-2 change-up — the first one she saw from Chiefallo in three at-bats — and she smacked a line drive over shortstop Aniska to set the table.
"Some of the pitches were close to the strike zone," VanBlargan said, "so you’ve got to foul them off until you get the right pitch, and I love change-ups."
Two ground outs later, courtesy runner Ebersole was at third base, and then eight-hole hitter Sara McKee worked a six-pitch walk and ninth hitter Katie Grazan had a five-pitch free pass to load the bases.
"That was a big deal," VanBlargan said of the at-bats by McKee and Grazan. "We’ve gotten better as a team on watching the high stuff. At the beginning of the season, we always wanted to swing at it. But our coaches always pitch high balls to us so we get used to seeing them and so we don’t swing at them, and I think that really helped us this time."
That brought leadoff batter Campbell to the plate, and she swung at the first pitch she saw from Chiefallo.
"I had seen that she threw a lot of nice first-pitch strikes, so I was looking at maybe trying to hit that," Campbell said.
She did hit it, and as Valley View shortstop Aniska back-pedaled, left fielder Santarelli charged. Ultimately, the ball glanced off of Aniska’s glove, and Ebersole crossed the plate to put the Lady Barons up 1-0.
"When I first hit it, I knew that it was going to be one of those close ones in between the infielder and the outfielders, so I just had my hands on my head hoping it would drop in," Campbell said. "I knew it was going to be close, though."
The Lady Cougars got the potential tying run on base in the top of the seventh inning on Iyoob’s third hit of the game — a single to center field. But Campbell got eight and nine-hitters Elayna Fazio and Anna McElroy to bounce out to shortstop Sam Ginder, and the Lady Barons punched their ticket to the State finals.
"I think it was during the fifth inning, I thought to myself, ‘Man, it’s still 0-0, they’re a really good team and this is going to be close,’" Campbell said. "I was just hoping that we could pull off that Manheim Magic and hopefully just get a run in here somehow." More LADY BARONS, page B-6