District Softball Preview: Opening Round

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Sometimes the difference between a dream and a nightmare is nothing more than one pitch.
The Neshaminy Redskins were one pitch away from losing their second one-run game of the season to Pennsbury when their story began to read like a fairy tale.
 It began with Courtney Clee’s dramatic RBI triple into deep left center with two outs in the seventh, two strikes on the junior switch hitter and the Redskins trailing by a run.
Two innings later, after the clock struck midnight on Thursday night, Clee stepped to the plate in the ninth inning of a tie game with two outs and a runner – Alexa Bell - in scoring position. Again, the junior second baseman emerged the hero, poking a soft line drive into left that plated Bell with the game winner.
“At that point, there was no question,” Clee said.
The win – Neshaminy’s first over Pennsbury since 2003 - gave the Redskins a share of the National Conference title with the Falcons, and on Friday, the Redskins won a coin toss with Pennsbury, earning the number one seed in the District One AAAA Tournament.
“I’m still recovering from that game,” coach Kathleen Houser said on Sunday night. “It was unreal.
“We were one strike away from being a definite three (seed), and we would have deserved it because they would have beaten us twice. It was unreal.”
There were early signs that the Redskins might be onto something special on Thursday.
For starters, senior Erin Quense had a feeling all day at school that the Redskins were going to defeat Pennsbury by a score of ‘something to two’ in the eagerly awaited showdown that night.
“I just had a gut feeling,” Neshaminy’s senior catcher said.
During Thursday night’s game, Samantha Creamer had a recurring thought as she stood in the outfield.
“I was like, ‘We’re going to win this game. We’re going to win this game,’” she said. “I knew we were going to win.”
The Redskins defeated the Falcons 3-2 after a dizzying sequence of events, effectively erasing memories of losses past.
“Every time we play them – it’s goofy stuff,” said Alexa Bell, who had a pair of hits and scored the game winner in the ninth inning. “They’re a good team, and they take advantage of the situations we give them. We usually end up beating ourselves.
“We came way too close the past three years, and to win it in our last game is just incredible. We definitely deserved it.”
The players acknowledged that playing Pennsbury became a mental battle.
“This year we finally ‘get it,’” Creamer said. “It’s Pennsbury, and yes, it’s a big game, but today was different.
“First of all, we weren’t worried about it because we just played it like a regular game.”
The start time of Thursday’s showdown was pushed back almost two hours because Truman’s non-league game against Bristol went 11 innings (a 2-1 Bristol win). The Redskins were unfazed, entertaining themselves with everything from a dance contest to a spitting contest.
“Every year we have done better and better,” senior Kelsey Ryan said. “Last year it could have been the same thing, but this year we’re more mature, and we’re like, ‘We have to go out with a bang.’”
Houser acknowledged she had tried every tactic in the book to try and help her team get over the Pennsbury hurdle.
“It was so frustrating for me” the Redskins’ coach said. “That 17-inning game (in the state semifinals in 2003) was the last time we beat them. Every year since it’s been almost like too much hype.
“I’ve tried every different way – I’ve tried pumping them up, I’ve tried ‘This is nothing.’ I’ve tried, ‘Nobody expects you to win – what are you going to do about that?’ I’ve tried every type of angle that I had in my bag of tricks, and it didn’t work.
“It definitely was a mental block.”
A mental block that went out the window with last Thursday night’s huge win.
#1 Neshaminy (Opening round bye)
The Redskins – who will face the winner of the Spring-Ford/Methacton game on Wednesday - head into districts riding the emotional wave of their big win over the Falcons and their ensuing win of a coin toss for district seeding.
On Monday, Houser will tell her players to file away their memories of that magical finish to the regular season and concentrate on the new challenge that awaits them – the district tournament.
“Nothing that happened before matters, even though that was huge,” Houser said. “It’s a brand new season.”
Although the Redskins are the district’s top seed, Houser knows from past experience that anything can happen when the post-season rolls around.
In her first year at the helm in 2002, Houser’s squad – which was third in the league and received the 14th seed in the district tournament – finished second in districts. In the state semis, the Redskins defeated a Chambersburg squad that featured pitcher Stephanie VanBrakle, who went on to have an All-American career at Alabama.  The Redskins scored three of the only six runs VanBrakle allowed all season and then extended North Allegheny for 10 innings before falling in the state title game.
One year later, Pennsbury defeated Neshaminy on the Redskins’ home field during the regular season, and the Redskins returned the favor, upending the Falcons on their home field. The Falcons won a coin toss to earn the district’s second seed while the Redskins were seeded third.
The Redskins lost to the Falcons in the district title game but avenged that loss with a win in a 17-inning marathon in the state semifinals. Their opponent in the state title game was once again North Allegheny, and this time the Redskins won in nine innings on a suicide squeeze.
“Anything can happen,” Houser said. “The pressure is on being the number one seed, but it does put us in such a nice spot.”
Courtney Clee, Erin Quense and Kelsey Ryan are the Redskins’ top hitters while junior Sarah McGowan is the team’s mound ace, but this is a veteran team that receives contributions up and down the lineup.
Six of Houser’s nine starters are four-year varsity veterans, two of the others are three-year starters, and she admits this is a special group.
 “These kids - you’re not supposed to have favorites, but I love them like they’re my sisters because I have been with them more than any other team I’ve had,” Houser said.
The Redskins are one of a handful of teams that do not have captains.
“I’d be a hypocrite if I did because I stress team, team, team, and how could I pick out of those nine with the six I have had since they were freshman,” Houser said. “I said, ‘You guys, this is your season now.’
“I always talk about those state runs and how much fun it is. We rode in vans, we got out of school early, and I want it for these guys. To be in such a good spot – I’m so excited, and I can’t wait to see what happens.”
#2 Central Bucks South (Opening round bye)
The Titans might be young, but they boast plenty of post-season experience. They are the defending district runner-up and last year advanced to the state semifinals.
It all starts on the mound for the Titans, who have a pair of standout pitchers in junior Fran Carrullo and sophomore Haileigh Stocks.
“They both have done a great job,” coach Jennifer Robinson said. “Fran has been so dominant on the mound. She doesn’t walk many at all. She really hits her pitches and has good velocity and good movement, and she has a good sense of the game. She has good command, and she knows what to do to make the batters work.
“We have Haileigh in a relief role, and she has started games. She’s also shown that she’s right up there among some of the top pitchers in the league. When she’s not pitching, she’s doing a phenomenal job at second where the majority of our balls are hit, and she’s our number three batter and has one of our team’s top batting averages.”
Morgan Decker, according to Robinson, doesn’t want to know her batting average, but it’s not an exaggeration to say she’s batting well over .500 for the season with 23 RBIs.
“Her batting average, her on-base percentage and her RBI production are just phenomenal,” the Titans’ coach said. “We don’t have girls hitting home runs and triples every game, but if you have a girl that’s hitting almost .600 and she’s getting singles and double and all these RBIs – I’ll take that any day over someone that gets big hits.”
Also key for the Titans is leadoff hitter Shana Steigerwalt.
“We had a hard time deciding who would fill that leadoff role because typically your leadoff batter is someone that is really quick, someone that draws a lot of walks, and we tried with some of our speedier girls – our bunters and slappers, but it just didn’t work,” Robinson said. “Shana is that girl who is going to step up and is going to put the ball in play most of the time.
“She drives that ball hard, and she forces people to make mistakes as well as gets the hits. We get her on and then move her over.”
Lauren Klepchick also boasts a big bat in the lineup for the Titans out of the five spot.
“The rest of the girls have shown great consistency,” Robinson said.
The Titans’ coach acknowledged there are some nerves heading into the tournament.
“I think we’re all really excited,” Robinson said. “There’s definitely a degree of nerves associated with it. It’s a one-and-done thing, and you don’t want your season to end on one game that on a better day you could have won.
“We know we have a good amount of talent. We’ve proven it throughout the season. We do have a great deal of confidence on the team. I just want to make sure we play confident the whole time and never cocky – never taking anyone lightly.
“I really think it’s going to come down – if we can play clean ball, we’ve shown we can hold teams to little or no runs. It’s just a matter of – can we get ourselves on the board, and can we hold them? Offense wins games, but defense wins championships. 
“We’re excited – a little nervous but confident we have the ability to take us all the way through.”
The Titans will face the winner of Monday's Spring-Ford/Methacton game in a second round game on Wednesday.
#3 Pennsbury (Opening round bye)
The Falcons handled their first defeat at the hands of Neshaminy in seven years with the same class they always displayed in victory, and coach Frank McSherry had a simple message for his players the following day at practice.
“I told them, ‘If we had lost the first game and won this game, the results would have been the same,’ and we would have been happy at Friday’s practice,” the Falcons’ coach said. “They were a little down at practice, and they were also tired.
“I told them, ‘If you had read and listened to everything everyone said about our team prior to the season – people were picking us to be third in the league.’ It was a really, really rewarding season. The kids have a lot to be proud of. We have had kids step up and fill gaps left by graduation last year with a lot of unexpected kids.
“I think what separates us and Neshaminy is their experience. They have so many kids who have played on that team for so long. They’re a really good team. They’re fundamentally sound.”
While pitcher Kait Schilling and second baseman D’Anna Devine have been fixtures in the Falcons’ lineup, there are plenty of new faces, and not all of them are young.
Junior first baseman Savanna Grantham moved up to varsity from the jayvee.
“She’s been hot for us,” McSherry said.
Third baseman Jess Greenwalt was playing eighth grade ball last spring. Danielle Fox is a newcomer behind the plate, and leftfielder Taylor Bidling is only a sophomore. At shortstop, freshman Mackenzie Obert looks like a seasoned veteran.
“The fly popup she dove for near third – I thought she was going through the fence,” McSherry said of a play by Obert in Thursday night’s game. “She was going so hard, and the slide went so long. She kept going and going, and she does that all the time. That’s the kind of player she is.”
The Falcons will face the winner of the Coatesville/Perkiomen Valley game.
“We’re going to have our hands full that second round,” McSherry said.
#4 Hatboro-Horsham (Opening round bye)
The young Hatters have thrived under the leadership of senior captains Megan Kelly and Chelsea Edwards this season.
“Megan and Chelsea have led the team not only on the field but off the field as well,” coach Kelly Krier said. “They have really embraced our younger players.
“At both their positions, our back-ups are freshmen, and you can see Megan and Chelsea working with those ninth graders in drills, when they’re hitting and just passing along what they know to them. We didn’t even ask them to do it – they do it on their own. Their leadership is something that’s special and will be missed.”
Sophomore pitcher Maggie Schaffer has been unflappable on the mound, compiling a dazzling 17-2 record.
“She has been pitching real well,” Krier said. “She came up big when teams had runners on base and we needed an out. She always seemed to find a way to either have them ground out or strike out.
“She just maintained her composure throughout the season. In any situation, she never let the pressure get to her, and that helped us out in really close games.”
Rightfielder Melissa Spinosa and first baseman Danielle DeFilippo- both juniors -have also stepped into leadership roles for the Hatters.
“They have been solid defensively, and I have seen them develop as leaders, knowing next year it will be their place to fill in for Chelsea and Megan,” Krier said. “I think they respect Chelsea and Megan enough to learn from them and also want to be like them, which is very good to see also.”
The Hatters will take on the winner of the Downingtown East/Wissahickon game on Wednesday.
“I was very excited with our seeding,” Krier said. “The hard work paid off. A lot of people who I talked to were shocked that a team with an 18-2 record could come in second place. That said a lot for the type of competition we play against.”
A key win for the Hatters was their non-league win over a Garnet Valley squad that was undefeated at the time and is seeded sixth in the tournament.
“We have a great rivalry, and at the time we knew it was an important game,” Krier said. “But we had just had a big win over North Penn the day before, and I didn’t know what to expect on a Friday after a long bus ride.
“It wasn’t until after the game that we knew they were undefeated. That really propelled us.”
The Hatters will take on the winner of the Wissahickon/Downingtown East game in Wednesday's second round.
#23 Academy Park at #10 North Penn
The Maidens have an agenda entering the district tournament. It turns out they haven’t forgotten last year’s 9-5 district quarterfinal loss to Owen J. Roberts that saw the Wildcats plate eight unearned runs. Their first order of business is to take care of an Academy Park team on Monday that is seeded 23rd.
“The girls got together – they remember what happened last year and how far we went last year,” coach Rick Torresani said. “They are so into – if we get to that third game, they want to make sure that won’t happen again.
“We have to take it one game at a time. Anybody can beat anybody.”
Leading the Maidens at the plate this season is senior clean-up hitter Steph Farrar, who is hitting at a .412 clip after being sidelined her entire junior year with a torn ACL.
“Having her in the four spot –she’s a lefthanded bat with power and the ability to drive in runs by taking the ball the other way, which she does really well,” Torresani said.
Catcher Miranda Sergas has also been a key for the Maidens not only at the plate where she is hitting .378 out of the third spot but also behind home plate.
“Miranda has done really well behind the plate,” Torresani said. “Kellianna (Bradstreet) was struggling in the middle of the season, and Miranda was working with her diligently during practice, trying to help her with her pitching motion.
“Just being a leader – every time things didn’t go well, Miranda has been there to push her and help her get her confidence back. That’s where she has been really helpful to me as a coach.”
It’s hardly a secret that Mary Ward - a switch hitter who is batting over .400 out of the lead-off spot – is the catalyst for the Maidens’ offense. She is also a golden glove third baseman.
The biggest surprise on this year’s squad is junior Steph Kulp, who came out of nowhere to hit seven home runs while hitting .340 and playing a solid center field.
Bradstreet’s value goes beyond her performances on the mound. Her bat has been a welcome addition to the lineup recently. She has been hitting close to .400.
“She has really helped us,” Torresani said.
A Maidens win on Monday would set up an all-SOL contest against Norristown in Wednesday's second round.
#21 Haverford at #12 Council Rock North
The Indians are in uncharted territory, and they are hoping to make their first trip to districts in five years a memorable one.
“Obviously, they’re very excited,” coach Hollie Woodard said. “This has been a long-time goal for them, and we have really focused in on trying to reach that goal.”
Woodward and assistant Meghan Sinback have both won state championships during their playing days at Pennsbury.
“We have worked this week on trying to get them into a playoff mentality,” Woodward said. “Even though we’re excited to be here, we don’t want our inexperience to be our downfall.
“Our approach has been to get the girls mentally prepared. We took our whole practice Friday and did a mental retreat type of thing. We created a set of rules for each other as far as what our expectations were so we don’t allow the excitement and emotion of the playoffs to take away from the physical aspect of play.”
Leading the Indians on the mound and at the plate is junior Morgan Lewis. Without a prototype clean-up hitter in her lineup, Woodard opted to put the left handed Lewis into the four hole. She responded by hitting over .400, and she’s entering the post-season with a 10-game hitting streak.
“This is the mentality of our team – if we tell them they can do something, they absolutely do it,” Woodard said. “Morgan is one of those people if I said, ‘The sky is green,’ she would say, ‘Absolutely, coach, it’s the greenest I’ve ever seen it.’
“She’s hitting with authority, she’s fielding well, and she’s pitching great. She’s definitely the centerpiece, and that’s what got us here.”
Freshman designated hitter Dominique Pinto has had a dazzling rookie season, hitting at a torrid .453 clip (29-for-64). Included in those hits are six triples and five doubles. She has 20 RBIs and had scored 17 runs and boasts a slugging percentage of .764.
Shortstop Caytlin Friis is hitting .370 out of the leadoff spot.
“She’s a stud at shortstop,” Woodard said. “She steals base hits up the middle with her back hand.”
Sophomore second baseman Michelle Hand bats out of the number two hole and has shown some power. She capably filled in at shortstop when Friis was injured.
Senior Sarah Bunke, a captain, anchors the outfield and has been effective hitting out of the nine spot. Deanna O’Hara is solid at third base, and senior catcher Cindy Catapano has also been steady calling and handling pitches behind the plate. Colleen Kraft rounds out the infield at first base.
Eight of the Indians’ nine hitters are batting over .350, and the RBI distribution – with just about all the players contributing between 10-12 – underscores the fact that this year’s success has been a team effort.
If the Indians win Monday's opener, they would face fifth-seeded Downingtown West on Wednesday.
#7 Norristown (Opening round bye)
Norristown coach Jon Kandrick admits he was surprised by his team's number seven seed and first round bye, but he'll take it every day of the week.
"We told have been talking most of the year about what we needed to do to get to the playoffs," the Eagles' coach said. "Although the league games are important, the non-league games will help out with the byes and seeds.
"I think that helped them this year because last year they really didn't understand the process. We did not expect to get the seven seed, especially with that loss to Springfield, but we got the seven seed. They know what's ahead of them now."
The Eagles boast a big non-league win over Truman - a win that may have given Norristown a higher seed and also kept the Tigers out of the playoffs.
Daisy Foster has been the undisputed heart and soul of this year's squad. The senior pitcher is also one of the team's top hitters with a .383 batting average.
"Last year she was a good pitcher, this year she turned into a great pitcher," Kandrick said. "She led our team. She's really stepped it up this year and has done more than her share to take the team on her back."
Shari Lynn Kluth has also been a leader. A standout outfielder, she filled in at shortstop when Maggie Creciun was sidelined with mono.
"She has done everything," Kandrick said. "Unfortunately, she doesn't always get the credit."
Creciun was the Eagles' top hitter with a .500 batting average. Gina Pellechia is not far behind with a .404 batting average out of the five hole.
"She has really gotten ahold of the ball and hits for power," Kandrick said. "She's only a sophomore, so we'll have her for a couple of good years."
Gabbie Berry is hitting .381 while Sammi Kidd is batting .362, and Stephanie DiNolfi boasts a .321 batting average. The Eagles are hitting .343 collectively as a team.
Barring a major upset, the Eagles will face North Penn in a second round game on Wednesday. Kandrick and Maiden coach Rick Torresani coach the Carpenter Cup team together and are close friends.
"It should be a fun game," Kandrick said. "Hopefully, it's a good, competitive game, and it will come down to who plays better that day.
"I told them, 'This is just another game. We can't treat it any differently. You come out and play tough, have fun, play loose and we continue to tell them - play Norristown softball. Hit the hell out the ball, play good defense and back up your pitcher.'
"Daisy knows we don't need her to dominate games. If the other team hits the ball, we have a good defense behind her. We don't need her to win any games, she just can't lose any for us."
#17 Central Bucks East at #16 Owen J. Roberts
The Patriots return to the playoffs after a two-year absence. They are the only sub .500 Class AAAA team to earn a district berth but finished fourth in the tough Continental Conference with a quality win over fourth-seeded Hatboro-Horsham to their credit.
"Definitely looking at the teams that made districts - I feel really privileged to be part of it," coach Erin Scott said. "Our overall record is 8-10, and people might say, 'How did they even make playoffs?' But if you look at the games we've played - every game we've won we had to earn. I'm just really happy we made it and feel really lucky to be a part of it."
Mound ace Robyn Ziegler will not be starting Monday's game against OJR since she was late to practice on Friday after attending her sister's graduation.
"My rule is you can't start if you're not at the practice before a game," Scott said.
In her stead, freshman Sierra Huckfeldt will get the starting nod.
"Hopefully, she can go for an inning or two, and we can get Robyn in there," Scott said. "Robyn has been a huge part of our team. We definitely wouldn't have had the success we've had without her.
"Pitching is such a big part of the game that if you don't have a strong pitcher, it makes it tough for your team. We definitely have a strong team, but Robyn has maintained her composure in pressure situations with runners on base."
A trio of freshmen also have been major contributors for the Patriots.
Allie Chase has had a brilliant rookie season. She has seven home runs and is hitting over .500. A natural outfielder, Chase has played third base for much of the season but will return to the outfield for Monday's playoff game.
"She has been huge offensively and done a phenomenal job for us," Scott said. "She's a great kid. I can't say enough good things about her, and I'm excited to have her in the program another three years."
Freshman Julia Schoenewald is playing first base for the Patriots.
"She didn't start at the begining of the season, but she totally stepped up offensively," Scott said. "We needed people in the lineup that would hit, and she's done that."
Freshman Jess Haug anchors the infield at shortstop.
"She's solid defensively and offensively," Scott said.
Brittany Devlin, a csenior aptain, has given the Patriots stability and veteran leadership behind the plate.
"She's solid defensively," Scott said. "When we have our younger pitchers in and our less experienced pitchers - blocking the ball, keeping the ball in front, keeping runners from moving around on the basepaths. She's done a great job for us."
#20 Wissahickon at #13 Downingtown East
The Trojans, who finished second in the American Conference, return to the playoffs for the first time in five years. They won 10 games this season after winning seven last year and are just two years removed from a one-win season.
"Our kids are really excited," coach Jerry Hartman said. "We start five sophomoes, one freshman, two juniors and one senior, and they're all excited about playing - a little nervous, but  they're excited, and I'm glad for our program.
"We have a lot of young kids, and they're doing well."
The undisputed leader of the Trojans is sophomore mound ace Katie Ziegler, who tossed both a five-inning and seven-inning perfect game this season.
"She's a wonderful pitcher, but she also had a lot of clutch hits for us," Hartman said. "She leads the team by example, and she's only a sophomore."
Sophomore Gretechen Gualiagnone, a first team all-league outfielder, plays left field and bats cleanup.
"She's probably a two hitter, but we have her in the four spot, and she really stepped up for us at the end of the year and started driving the ball," Hartman said. "She played nice left field."
Sophomore Rebecca Marinucci hit .440 out of the lead-off spot and plays second base for the Trojans.
"She can hit the ball, and she's also a bunter," Hartman said. "She hits the ball with surprising power and did a really nice job in the lead-off position."
With the team in dire need of a catcher, Karen Kaksh stepped up and filled that position.
"We had a lot of injuries and had a lot of people step up," Hartman said. "She never played that position before in her life and did a nice job for us in tough circumstances."
Freshman Alex Cominitski has anchored the infield at shortstop.
"That's a tough position to play, and she's done a nice job," Hartman said. "She was our number two hitter and a bunter and had a nice year as well."
#4 St. Pius X at #1 Springfield (Montco)