By Matt Popchock

The first game of Thursday’s doubleheader at North Allegheny High School started with the look and feel of one that could’ve gone on a while. Ambridge manager Jim Huwar is glad it didn’t.

“You don’t want to get involved in nine- or 10-inning games in the playoffs. Those can eat you alive,” Huwar said.

Rather, the second-seeded Bridgers’ road back to the finals was the standard seven innings, because they interrupted a pitching clinic by scratching out a pair of runs in the fifth inning. Senior Kayla Haslett took care of the rest, striking out three, and allowing just three hits in a 2-0 win over third-seeded Valley in the WPIAL Class AAA Softball Semifinals.

Ambridge allowed just five Valley players to reach base.

“The defense gets better every day,” Huwar said. “They have a great team and a great pitcher too, but it came our way today. Our defense really did a great job.”

“I felt really confident today,” Haslett said. “We’ve been working on [defense] all year, and they really helped me out. I’m just so excited.”

She and her Ambridge teammates will return to California University’s Lilly Field next Thursday at 4:30 with one more shot at the WPIAL Class AAA championship that Montour denied them last season, though the Bridgers won’t get to seek revenge on the Spartans. The defending champs and No. 1 seed were upended by Yough 3-1 in the other Class AAA Semifinal.

In addition to beating Valley senior Caitlin Nealer, who had posted back-to-back postseason shutouts (just as she did in the first two rounds of the 2010 playoffs), Ambridge denied the former Class AA champs the opportunity to join 1983-84 Seton-LaSalle as the only other softball program in WPIAL history to win consecutive championships in two different classifications.

Haslett and Nealer, two of the most accomplished pitchers in the classification, if not the entire district, coupled for four and a half innings of scoreless action in which the teams combined for just three hits. Lexi Hilzendeger padded that number by leading off the bottom of the fifth with a double to deep center.

Hilzendeger went to third on a wild pitch to Breanna Gleason, who drew a four-pitch walk. Emily Mley then dribbled a ball back toward the mound, and Hilzendeger, who was hustling all the way, slid into catcher Katrina George to break up the play at the plate, and to break Nealer’s goose egg.

“We may not have the fastest girls, but we’re teaching them to get breaks on the ball, and to run everything out,” Huwar said.

For all the talk about Ambridge’s defense, Valley’s defense did a good job limiting the damage. They threw out Gleason at home, and did the same to Hannah Smith to end the inning, though not before Haslett helped her own cause with an RBI single that scored Mley.

Haslett retired 12 of the last 13 Vikings she faced to finish the job.

“It’s a great win for the school, and a great win for the program. These girls earned it,” Huwar said.

The Bridgers were coming off a 3-1 Quarterfinal win over No. 7 seed Chartiers Valley–one of three consecutive playoff games they have won at NA–while Valley was coming off a 1-0 Quarterfinal victory over No. 11 seed West Allegheny at Hampton High School.

The second contest at NA was also a pitcher’s duel, much more so than some might have expected, and it was also about another of the WPIAL’s most successful hurlers showing what a complete player she has become.

Burrell senior Casey Moses, while striking out seven, walking just two, and scattering four hits, went 2-for-3 at the plate with a game-winning two-run homer in the Buccaneers’ 2-0 stonewalling of No. 13 seed South Allegheny in Class AA Semifinal action.

Like Ambridge, the top-seeded Bucs, who have not been scored upon since a 7-2 win over Ford City in their Section 3 finale May 10, return to California’s Lilly Field with a chance to turn 2010 silver medals into 2011 gold ones. Their opponent in the WPIAL Class AA Final next Thursday at 2:00 will be No. 6 seed Greensburg Central Catholic, which ousted No. 7 seed Deer Lakes 6-2 on Thursday.

“After a game like that, we feel really good. We were worried about South Allegheny. They came from nowhere, same as we did last year. I was primed for a [possible] upset, and they gave us all we could handle,” Burrell manager Mike Spagnolo said.

Burrell got to South Allegheny junior pitcher Sarah Jacobs early, as catcher Courtney Reed led off the top of the second with a hustling double to center field. Moses then drove a 1-0 pitch over the fence in right-center for her second home run of the year.

“I took extra batting practice last night,” Moses said, “and I knew I had to bring in the runner on second, so I just wanted to do what I could to help the team.”

“She’s been hitting the ball really well the past two or three games, giving us something we didn’t have at the beginning of the year,” Spagnolo said. “And her pitching was exceptional.”

The Buccaneers would open the inning with four consecutive hits, but Jacobs, to her credit, settled down and looked sharp in defeat, allowing just two the rest of the way from their lethal offense, and retiring the last 11 batters she faced.

Nevertheless, the Gladiators never seriously threatened until the bottom of the sixth, a threat Burrell survived thanks to Moses and her defense.

Marissa D’Angelo led off with a single, then, when Jacobs flied out to second, took second as Claire Fisher tried to double off D’Angelo and made an ill-advised throw that sailed to the fence. Gabi Vogt singled to put runners at the corners, but cleanup hitter Taylor Geary struck out swinging when the home plate and first base umpires conferred and ruled that Moses’ 1-2 pitch had been caught before it hit the dirt. A pop out to center field ended the inning.

“I trust these girls with my life,” said Moses, whose defense collected six ground ball outs, 11 fly ball outs, and one out via rundown through six innings. “I have a really good defense behind me, and we feel we can get out of anything.”

Moses would strike out the side to give Burrell its 12th consecutive victory.

“It felt great,” she said with a smile. “I couldn’t ask for anything better in my senior year than going back to the WPIAL Finals.”

The Bucs were coming off a 5-0 victory over No. 8 seed Bishop Canevin in the Quarterfinals, also at NA, while the Gladiators were coming off a 5-3 upset of No. 5 seed New Brighton at Fairhaven Park in Kennedy Township.


So the championship matchups in Class AAA and Class AA are set. Meanwhile, the Class AAAA and Class A Finals were locked into place over the past Wednesday.

Before we forget, however, we should digress for a moment to briefly mourn the loss of Mount Alvernia High School, the all-girls institution north of Millvale that became a basketball powerhouse. The school is closing at the end of this academic year, and the Lions’ First Round softball playoff loss to Shenango in the Class A tournament back on Monday was the last athletic event in its history.

Anyway, No. 5 seed Latrobe and No. 10 seed Seneca Valley will meet for the WPIAL Class AAAA Championship at Lilly Field next Thursday evening at 7:00.

Latrobe earned a 10-0 mercy-rule victory over reigning champion Mount Lebanon at Woodland Hills High School in the Quarterfinals before upsetting top-seeded Shaler 4-3 in an eight-inning Semifinal affair, also at Woody High, Wednesday afternoon, thanks to winning pitcher Alexa Larkin’s walk-off RBI single.

Seneca also stunned one of the favorites, beating No. 2 seed Hempfield 4-2 in the Quarterfinals at Woodland Hills High School Monday. How big an upset was it? Read between the lines; the Spartans had won 17 in a row, outscoring opponents 162-16, and had been held to two runs on only one other occasion in 2011. The Raiders then made quick work of Baldwin in a 12-2 Semifinal drubbing at the same site. Erin Mullen went 2-for-3 with two runs and three RBI, and Seneca scored 11 runs in the fourth.

In the Class A bracket, top seed and prohibitive favorite Chartiers-Houston is getting ready for a true David-versus-Goliath matchup against No. 15 seed Fort Cherry in the WPIAL Class A Final, which will kick off the festivities at Lilly Field next Thursday at 11:30 A.M.

The Buccaneers remained undefeated and un-scored upon in these playoffs with a 9-0 blowout of No. 8 seed North Catholic and an equally convincing 5-0 win over No. 5 seed South Side Beaver in the Quarterfinals and Semifinals, respectively, at Fairhaven Park. After those two wins Kiersten Conwell has now racked up 155 K’s heading into next week’s championship contest, and she hasn’t allowed an earn run in–get this–95 innings.

Meanwhile, how did the under-the-radar Rangers go on such a remarkable run? After its head-turning upset of Sto-Rox, Fort Cherry blasted No. 7 seed West Greene 13-2 in a mercy-rule Quarterfinal game at Cal U. Monday. Jess Meyer went 4-for-5 with five RBI and came a triple shy of the cycle. Fort Cherry then blanked No. 6 seed Shenango, which had upset No. 3 seed Carmichaels, in a 8-0 laugher on Semifinal Thursday at Fairhaven Park. The Rangers stormed out to a 7-0 lead after two innings, and Nicolette McHugh pitched a two-hitter.

By the way, there was another Quarterfinal upset definitely worth noting, even though it didn’t quite have the same magnitude as Seneca Valley over Hempfield. On Monday Greensburg Central Catholic mercy-ruled No. 3 seed Seton-LaSalle in a 10-0 win in Class AA action at Lilly Field. The Rebels entered that game with a 15-1 record, and had not allowed more than three runs in a game all season.

Be sure to check back with the Mr. High School Sports blog next week for special coverage of the 2011 WPIAL Softball Championships!