The South Park Eagles redeemed a third place finish in the WPIAL playoffs and had the last laugh by taking home the program’s first PIAA state title in history 4-2 over District 11 champion Pine Grove.
The Eagles scrapped and clawed for a run in the first, second, fifth, and seventh innings to pull out a hard-fought victory over a Pine Grove team that defeated three other district champions on its way to the title game. South Park’s lone senior Justine Dean silenced the high-speed Cardinal attack that had blitzed its way to 32 runs in the previous three rounds of state postseason play.
“Pine Grove was the best team we played all season, no doubt about it,” said coach Larry Mercurio. “A lot of lefties, very good hitters. They put the ball in play and I’m sure they force a lot of teams to make mistakes. Fortunately for us, we were able to minimize those mistakes and hold them to those two runs. Every inning was a fight no question about it.”
South Park started the game by scoring against Pine Grove’s ace Liv Lehman. Jess Dean led off the game with an opposite field double, and was awarded home on a throwing error that ended up in the South Park dugout after a flyout in the next at bat. Before the bottom half of the first inning could being, a flash of lightning was spotted near the stadium and a mandated delay began. Teams waited in dugouts and fans waited in cars for the next three-plus hours with the score 1-0 through half an inning. What had been a 4:30 p.m. start was resumed for the final six and a half innings around 8:10 p.m.
“They dealt with [the delay] how each one of them individually wanted to deal with it,” said Mercurio. “Some of them slept, some of them were so wired up they couldn’t stand still. We didn’t put a lot of pressure on them and let them do what they were comfortable with.”
Pine Grove’s aggressive style on the base paths proved costly in the first as Kate Rittenbaugh was thrown out at third base trying to advance on a pitch in the dirt, and the Cardinals were unable to plate a run in the inning. South Park freshman Chelsea Carozza scored the second run of the game after she led off the second inning with a walk, was sacrificed to second, stole third and crossed the plate on a squeeze play that left everyone safe by fellow freshman Taylor Glowa. Despite the 2-0 lead, South Park had stranded five runners in the first two innings after the Eagles left the bases loaded in the second.
Pine Grove responded with a two-out, two-run single by sophomore Maura Lehman to plate courtesy runner Emily Hindman and Avery Nagle. Neither team was able to score in the third or fourth, with South Park retired in order in both frames. After giving up a run in the first two innings, Liv Lehman retired seven batters in a row through the middle innings.
Penn State commit Kaitlyn Morrison led off the fifth inning with a double off the wall. Pitt recruit Katlyn Pavlik followed with a single of her own. South Park took the lead again thanks to a sacrifice fly by Charlyn Blackburn to shallow right field to plate Morrison, giving South Park a 3-2 lead.
Pine Grove threatened the one-run lead in the sixth inning, when Nagle reached second base on an error, and advanced to third with two outs. Dean got pinch hitter Emily Hindman to pop up to Blackburn to escape with the lead intact going into the seventh.
The seventh inning began much like the fifth for the Eagles. Morrison led off with a hit, follow by Pavlick’s own single. Dean walked to load the bases. South Park took advantage of another Pine Grove miscue and Morrison raced home for an insurance run on a pitch that trickled by the Cardinals catcher to extend the South Park lead to 4-2. Despite loading the bases with nobody out, South Park only scored that run as Lehman rung up back-to-back Eagles to escape the jam. South Park left 10 runners on base and seven runners were left in scoring position in the championship game.
Dean closed the deal in the bottom of the seventh inning by getting Pine Grove’s cleanup hitter Caitlyn Becher to line out to Jess Dean at first to secure the win. It was her fourth straight victory over a district champion team in the circle for the senior.
“She’s an ego-free pitcher, that’s the best way to describe her,” said Mercurio. “Obviously you want to strike every batter out but that’s not going to happen. She knows when to pitch to contact and she knows when to trust her defenders.”
South Park became the fourth 2017 PIAA Champion hailing from district seven, joining Mount Pleasant, Hempfield, and West Greene.
South Park Eagles 1 – 1 – 0 – 0 – 1 – 0 – 1 = 4 – 9 – 1 – 10
Pine Grove Cardinals 0 – 2 – 0 – 0 – 0 – 0 – 0 = 2 – 9 – 1 – 8