UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Coming into the season, Punxsutawney manager Alan Pifer wasn’t thinking about a state championship.
(Photo by Jared Bakaysa of JB Graphics. See more of Bakaysa’s work here)
It’s not that Pifer didn’t have confidence in his team, especially knowing he had senior pitcher Kylee Lingenfelter, a Penn State recruit, to lead the way. But Pifer also knew he had to replace six starters from last year’s District 9 Class 4A championship team that lost to Belle Vernon, 1-0, in the opening round of the PIAA playoffs.
“Losing six senior starters was huge,” Pifer said. “I lost my entire outfield, my third baseman, my second base and my catcher. We had all those holes to fill. You knew you had a girl in Kylee who was going to keep you in games, but there was so much to replace. We didn’t know what we had.”
What the Lady Chucks had was the makings of a team that has advanced to the PIAA Championship game for just the second time in school history and will try to win the school’s first PIAA softball title when it takes on District 11 champion Bethlehem Catholic in the title game at 1:30 p.m. Friday, June 15, at the Nittany Lion Softball Park on the campus of Penn State University.
“Our junior varsity program did an absolutely fantastic job of getting these girls prepared for varsity,” Pifer said. “I never realized it would come together as quickly as it has and they would develop as they have so quickly into great ball players.”
Still, Pifer didn’t foresee a run to the PIAA title game until after Punxsutawney vanquished WPIAL runner-up Elizabeth Forward, 8-0, in the opening round of the PIAA playoffs June 4 at Heindl Field in DuBois.
“The Elizabeth Forward team was good,” Pifer said. “We knew they had played Belle Vernon tight. When we beat them 8-0, it showed that we can play with those teams. It was then I thought we could make a little bit of a run here.”
Having a pitcher like Lingenfelter has certainly helped the Lady Chucks (18-3).
On the season, the righty is 15-2 with a 0.71 ERA. In 108 ⅔ innings of work, she has struck out 224 while issuing 22 walks and just 42 hits. After allowing seven runs, six earned, on nine hits and six walks while striking out nine in a season-opening win over Clearfield, she has been nearly untouchable.
Since that game, she has thrown 101 ⅔ innings giving up 16 runs and only five earned runs for an ERA of 0.34. In that span, she has walked 16 and allowed 33 hits while striking out 213, an average of just over two per inning.
If possible, Lingenfelter has taken her game to another level in the postseason.
In four postseason games, she is 4-0 with a 0.27 ERA. In 26 postseason innings, she has allowed one run on eight hits and five walks while striking out 59, an average of 2.3 per inning.
“I have seen her dominate games before,” Pifer said. “But against this level of competition for this long of time, no. She has kicked it into another gear.”
Lingenfelter is Punxsutawney’s strength and she and the Lady Chucks will be facing the strength of Bethlehem Catholic, its offense.
The Hawks have three regulars hitting .500 or better and seven at .342 or better. Since the start of the District 11 playoffs, Bethlehem Catholic is hitting .441 (67 of 152) as a team with 41 runs scored in five games, an average of 8.2 per contest.
Leading the way for the Hawks offense is Tatum Kresley, who has hit safely in 24 of 25 games this season and is batting .569 with 29 runs scored and 17 RBIs. Unbelievably, those numbers are actually down from her first 16 games when she hit .620 (31 of 50). But she enters the title game on a six-game hitting streak that has seen her hit .526 (10 of 19) during that stretch.
Kresley, who has been hitting out of the No. 9 spot in the lineup, is one of five Hawks riding hitting streaks of at least five games into the title game.
Alyssa Jimenez and Julia Sledz both come in on eight-game hitting streaks.
Jimenez has gone 18 of 33 (.545) with 14 runs scored and eight RBIs during that span, while Sledz is 14 of 25 (.560) with eight RBIs during that stretch.
On the season, Jimenez is hitting .419 with 27 runs scored and 19 RBIs with Sledz checking in at .500 (33 of 66) with 31 RBIs and 11 runs scored.
Tasha Minor comes into the title game having hit safely in seven straight (15 of 26, .577, 10 RBIs, 9 runs scored) while also having hit safely in 14 of her last 15 games (.547). On the season, she is hitting .519 with 32 RBIs and 30 runs scored.
Leadoff hitter Jess Indelicato is hitting .461 on the year with 23 RBIs and 25 runs scored and is hitting .476 (10 of 21) with five runs scored and four RBIs during a current five-game hitting streak.
In addition to those five players, Addy Roche is batting .384 with 20 runs scored and 14 RBIs, and Alexa Panuccio is hitting .342 with 15 RBIs and 16 runs scored.
Even when presented with those numbers, Pifer likes his team’s chances.
“I feel good,” Pifer said. “My pitcher has just kicked it up another level in the playoffs. She obviously doesn’t want her senior season to end, and she is helping us make it last as long as she can.”
Perhaps Pifer’s good feelings are a combination of Lingenfelter’s pitching and the fact his team hasn’t exactly been cold with the bats in the postseason.
Punxsutawney is averaging 7.3 runs per game in its four playoff games while hitting .346 (37 of 107) with 12 extra-base hits, including four home runs. In fact, the Lady Chucks have hit four home runs in three PIAA playoff games after hitting six all season through the D9 championship game, a 10-0 win over St. Marys.
Pifer credits a couple of things for the upturn in the offense.
“I think the fact going against Kylee in practice has helped,” Pifer said. “Also, hitting is contagious for us. Once someone gets a hit, the rest believe they can do it too. I think that is what they believe. They see someone hitting the ball, and it is contagious.”
Junior first baseman Grace Aikens has been a tough out all season long for the Lady Chucks, who enter the game hitting .352 as a team. Aikens is hitting a team-best .577 with three home runs, five doubles and 20 RBIs.
Freshman Kendal Johnston, one of three freshmen and one of six freshmen and sophomores in the starting lineup, has forced her way into the starting lineup recently and is hitting .529 with a home run, four doubles and eight RBIs in just nine games (17 at-bats).
Lingenfelter, freshman Sarah Weaver and sophomore Madison Stonbracker are also hitting over .400 for Punxsutawney with Lingenfelter, the leadoff hitter checking in at .469 with two homers, a triple, 10 doubles and 18 RBIs. Weaver, the No. 2 hitter, is hitting .435 with two homers, four doubles and 15 RBIs and Stonbracker is batting .419 with three doubles and 16 RBIs. It was back-to-back home runs in the third inning after two outs by Lingenfelter and Weaver that helped fuel a 3-1 win over defending PIAA champion Mt. Pleasant in Monday’s semifinal contest.
Additional young player contributing to the Lady Chucks success include sophomore Abby Gigliotti (.311), freshman shortstop Riley Presloid (.286) and sophomore third baseman Holly Hartman (.280, 1 HR, 13 RBIs). Hartman had a home run, a double and five RBIs in the win over Elizabeth Forward to start this run.
“They simply go out and play,” Pifer said of his younger players. “This is a whole new experience for them. They are gamers. They just go out and play.”
The Punxsutawney offense will most likely be facing Kresley, who has started all five of Bethlehem Catholic’s playoff games.
On the year, Kresley is 14-5 with a 2.75 ERA. In 117 innings of work, she had struck out 82 while walking 33 and giving up 107 hits. Kresley has been outstanding in the last two playoff games after getting pulled in the PIAA opener against Jersey Shore after allowing three runs on seven hits in three innings of work. Since the yanking, she is 2-0 with a 0.50 ERA having allowed one run on 10 hits and three walks while striking out 11 in 14 innings of work.
In Tuesday’s 11-0 semifinal win over Greater Nanticoke, a game the Hawks led just 2-0 until a nine-run top of the seventh, Kresley tossed a five-hit shutout walking two and striking out eight.
“We have to keep doing what we are doing,” Pifer said. “We don’t take anyone for granted. The bottom line is the job is not done yet. We can’t deviate from what we are doing. We have to have a positive state of mind and believe in ourselves and believe in our teammates and pick each other up when we are down.”
Along those lines, Pifer doesn’t plan to change anything up going into Friday’s game.
“There are a lot of distractions right now,” Pifer said. “A lot of things the community is doing for us, and it’s great. We appreciate it. But we can’t let that distract us to the point where we aren’t playing our game. In 2006 (the last time Punxsutawney went to the PIAA title game, a 3-0 loss in Class 3A to Donegal), it almost seemed like they were distracted and we didn’t play our best game that we were capable of playing. One of the things I keep reminding them of is it’s not always the better team that wins, it is the team that plays the best that day.”
Pifer said he is trying to keep the same routine for the team, and the Lady Chucks weren’t planning on traveling to Penn State until Friday.
“We want to keep doing what we have been doing,” Pifer said. “We will do a little bit of hitting and then talk to the girls before taking off. We are superstitious that way I guess.”
ROAD TO THE CLASS 4A TITLE GAME
May 24 – District 11 Semifinals: Bethlehem Catholic 11, Blue Mountain 1, 5 innings
May 29 – District 11 Championship Game: Bethlehem Catholic 8, Bangor 2
June 4 – PIAA First Round: Bethlehem Catholic 8, Jersey Shore 3
June 7 – PIAA Quarterfinals: Bethlehem Catholic 4, Tunkhannock 1
June 12 – PIAA Semifinals: Bethlehem Catholic 11, Greater Nanticoke 0
May 25 – District 9 Championship Game: Punxsutawney 10, St. Marys 0, 5 innings
June 4 – PIAA First Round: Punxsutawney 8, Elizabeth Forward 0
June 7 – PIAA Second Round: Punxsutawney 8, West Perry 0
June 11 – PIAA Semifinals: Punxsutawney 3, Mt. Pleasant 1
DISTRICT 9 SOFTBALL TEAMS TO REACH THE PIAA CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
2018 – Punxsutawney (Class 4A) – vs. Bethlehem Catholic (TBA)
2016 – Moniteau (Class 2A) – Lost to Holy Redeemer, 9-3
2015 – Elk County Catholic (Class 1A) – Beat Conemaugh Valley, 7-0
2011 – Clarion (Class 1A) – Lost to Minersville, 6-1
2009 – Curwensville (Class 1A) – Beat Old Forge, 1-0
2007 – Curwensville (Class 1A) – Beat Upper Dauphin, 7-3
2006 – Punxsutawney (Class 3A) – Lost to Donegal, 3-0