SLIPPERY ROCK — The Clarion softball team gave two-time defending Class A state champion West Greene all it could handle Friday in the Class A state quarterfinals, but the Lady Pioneers prove to be just a little better in a 5-4 victory at Slippery Rock University.
Clarion outhit West Greene, 11-6, but the Lady Pioneers capitalized on two walks and two errors in the top of the fifth to put together a huge five-run inning to take what appeared to be a commanding 5-0 lead.
However, Clarion didn’t go away quietly with a berth in the state semifinals on the line and put together a rally of its own in the bottom of the seventh against West Greene starter Jade Renner.
Lady Cat Payton Simko led off the bottom of the seventh with her second double of the game. Ava Kiser and Noel Anthony followed with back-to-back singles to load the bases with no outs. Anthony’s hit came on a ball hit into shallow center field that West Greene shortstop Kaitlyn Rizor couldn’t quite make a play on.
Kaitlyn Constantino followed with a single of her own to score Simko with Clarion’s first run. Constantino finished 3-for-4 with the one RBIs on the day. Groundouts by Carly Best and Brenna Campbell then plated two more runs to make it 5-3, but it also gave Renner two outs.
Jordan Best kept the rally going for Clarion with a single to left-center that brought home Constantino, but that’s as close as the Lady Cats got as Renner fielded a sharp comebacker of the bat of Tori Vega and threw to first to end the game.
While Renner and West Greene held off the Lady Cats in that seventh-inning rally, the Lady Pioneers’ win was arguably saved by a pair of key defensive plays earlier in the game.
The first came in the bottom of the fourth.
Campbell reached on an error to open the inning and was bunted to second by Jordan Best. Vega followed with a single to right and Clarion tried to score Campbell in what was a scoreless game at the time.
Unfortunately for the Lady Cats, West Greene right fielder Mackenzie Carpenter fired a strike to the plate and catcher Kylie Simms tagged out Campbell as she slid into the plate.
“It was 0-0, so I had no problem bring her home there,’ said Clarion coach Dan Shofetall. “The right fielder closed the gap on the ball, and it takes a perfect throw to get her. I don’t think it broke our momentum at all, because it was 0-0. When you have a game like this against a good team, I think you tale a shot like that. You make them throw you out.”
The second happened in the bottom of the fifth right after West Greene put its five runs on the board in the top half of the inning.
Vega led off the inning with a double down the right-field line but tried to stretch it into a triple. A strong relay throw easily got Vega at third for the first out, which proved to be vital for West Greene after Renner hit Kiser and Constantino singled with one out — which likely would have scored Vega.
Instead, it was another run saved by the West Greene defense in what proved to be a one-run victory that propelled the Lady Pioneers into Monday’s state semifinals against District 9 champ DuBois Central Catholic.
“West Greene took advantage of our mistakes, which good teams do,” said Clarion coach Dan Shofestall. “The one bad inning hurt. We kept fighting though. We’re a young team and they just didn’t quit, and I think that is the story of this team this year. They have a lot of heart and never quit.
“Give credit to their pitcher. She pitches to contact a lot, and that’s where she is so effective, and they have the defense to play behind her. Especially early in the game, we swung and hit the first pitch a lot. That helps her keep her pitch count down. Give her credi that way, and we did get on her more there at the end.”
Before the late offensive fireworks, the first four innings was a pitchers’ duel between Constantino and Renner.
Constantino allowed just two hits while walking two batters during that stretch.
Lady Pioneer McKenna Lampe walked to lead off the game but was eventually stranded at third as Constantino retired the next three hitters on a pair of groundouts and a liner to Campbell at short.
Constantino made quick of the West Greene in the second with a pair of strikeouts before first baseman Lindsey Kemmer went to one knee to snag a soft liner in foul territory to end the inning.
West Greene (21-4) made some noise in the third when Simms singled and Lampe walked with one out. Clarion halted the rally there though as Campbell cut . down courtesy runner Anna Durbin at third before Rizor flew out to left to end the inning.
As for Clarion, it had just two runners in the first three innings.
Carly Best singled to right with one out in the first but was stranded at second, while Constantino hit a two-out single to right-center in the third.
Carpenter’s throw to the plate in the fourth kept it a scoreless game before West Greene exploded for its five runs in the fifth.
The Lady Pioneers loaded the bases with one out on a pair of walks and a bunt single by Madison Lampe. With the corners up, Rizor followed with a grounder to third that wasn’t handled, allowing Kiley Meek to score.
Renner followed with a double to left-center that plated a pair of runs. A third run scored on the play when the ball was mishandled in the outfield to make it 4-0.
Constantino followed with a strikeout of Brianna Amos, but special pinch runner Katie Lampe then stole third before scoring on a wild pitch on a close play at the plate as catcher Jordan Best dove to make the tag. That run later proved to be the game-winner.
The loss, the final game for Clarion eniors Carly Best and Kemmer, ended a magical season for what was otherwise a young Lady Cat squad that posted an 18-6 record.
“I’ve coached a lot of teams over my years, but this is a team I really thought from Day 1 improved better than any other team I’ve had. And, that’s not to take anything away from other team’s I’ve coached. They just improved so much, and the key to this team was we were young in a lot of areas but they don’t panic as you saw today. They don’t quit.
“When you get to this stage of the state playoffs, you have to fight because everyone else is fighting to get in there (finals). I thought we took the fight to them (West Greene) pretty good, but they took the fight to us two. You had two good teams playing.”