TIONESTA, Pa. (EYT/D9) — Lurking under the thick canopy of the Allegheny National Forest is a predator no one wants to face.
For three decades it has been in hiding. Overlooked. Ignored. Dismissed as fangless and docile.
The Forest Fires are a softball team no one wants to tangle with.
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Forest pitcher Izzy Flick threw a four-inning no-hitter, striking out nine, Faith Dietrich hit a pair for three-run doubles and Maggie Boehme drove in four as the Fires scorched Clarion, 16-1, in the first round of the District 9 Class A playoffs Monday afternoon.
Dietrich’s bases-loaded double keyed a six-run first inning for Forest. Her bases-loaded double in the fourth was one of several big blows in a 10-run frame for the Fires.
“I hadn’t been hitting well, but I’m comfortable and confident in my ability,” Dietrich said. “I’m more confident in my team’s ability and what they can do. It’s just a miracle watching them play and watching them do the stuff they do. I can’t find any better girls.”
Clarion led 1-0 in the top of the first on an unearned run against an unusually wild Flick. But the right-hander was able to get out of the shaky inning with just a sacrifice fly by Bri Forrest.
That was the highlight of the day for the Bobcats.
There were plenty of highlights to come for Forest.
The Fires answered quickly with six in the bottom of the first.
In addition to Dietrich’s bases-clearing double, Boehme had a two-run single and Brenna Thompson tripled home a run.
Clarion pitcher Payton Simko settled down and matched zeros with Flick until the fourth.
Forest scored 10 runs on nine hits in the inning. Madison McFarland, who went 3-for-4 with three RBIs, triggered the 15-run mercy rule with a two-run double to end it.
The onslaught even caught Forest coach Eric Flick off guard.
“It was surprising a little bit,” he said. “I mean, they’re capable of it any day, any game, but you expect in the playoffs that you’re going to have to be fighting nerves and you expect a battle. Clarion’s a good team. They’ve had some good successes here against some teams that we didn’t.”
Successes at all have a special meaning at Forest.
The team is comprised of players from three schools: North Clarion, West Forest and East Forest. Winning softball games has been a struggle at times.
But last year the schools that make up the Fires made the playoffs for the first time in three decades, but fell to Elk County Catholic, 17-12, in the first round.
This year, Forest (15-3) has been a juggernaut.
“This feels absolutely amazing,” Boehme said. “Definitely better than when I was a freshman and we were getting mercy-ruled all the time.”
For Clarion (9-9), the loss marked the end of an up-and-down season.
The Bobcats had their moments, but also struggled mightily at times.
“We would have liked to play a little better,” said Clarion coach Dan Shofestall. “But give Forest credit. That’s a good team. They have a lot of spirit over there. A lot of fire. That’s what good teams do.”
Clarion loses six seniors, all of whom were key members of the program.
“They’re a good bunch of kids,” Shofestall said. “They made many contributions over the years, represented our team well, and their families and the school well. Hats off to them, too. We’re so proud of them that they’re moving on to the next next chapter their lives.”
Forest is moving on in the playoffs.
The Fires will play Otto-Elded in the semifinals Wednesday at a site and time to be determined.
They enjoy their new status of the team no one wants to play.
“It’s a great feeling to know that’s the general thought among the the other teams in the district that nobody wants to play us,” Flick said. “I don’t even really know what to think about that. We’ve had talks at the end of the game or at the end of practice, and I say, ‘Look, we’re having a year where we don’t even have to have the best game of our season to win.’ Other years, other teams we’ve been on, you have to have a perfect game to win. I think that if we just play our game and not kill herself with errors, we can win just about any game.”