It's a big day: Softball, baseball open PIAAs

PUNXSUTAWNEY — With their respective wins over St. Marys last Wednesday in Brockway, the Chucks baseball team and the Lady Chucks softball team each advanced to today's opening round of the PIAA Class AAA State Championships.

On the boys' end, the Chucks, who earned an impressive ninth-consecutive District IX crown last Wednesday, will open the PIAAs with a 4 p.m. contest against a WPIAL team — the Belle Vernon Leopards — who finished as District VII's second seed after a 1-0 loss in a pitching duel against Blackhawk in the D-VII championship game last Thursday.

Much like the Lady Chucks, one of the Chucks' steady strengths all season has been their pitching, and in the D-IX championship game, junior Jamie Bush pitched a solid complete-game shutout.

With the help of a five-run first inning — sparked by a two-run dinger by junior Ty Zimmerman — Bush and the Chucks cruised to a 6-0 victory over their D-IX rival, the Dutch.

After a solid night of practice Sunday, Punxsy head coach Mike Dickey said he likes the mentality of his team entering today's matchup.

"I don't think these guys are done yet," he said. "They're focused; they're hungry; and I don't think they're satisfied with just winning District IX. We had a good practice — as well as we could in the rain. Now, it's about executing and performing, and I think we're ready to do that."

The Leopards finished their season 18-4, including a 9-0 home record, but the Chucks hope to ride the momentum of a winning cause in their championship game, while Belle Vernon must overcome the sting of its recent defeat. Despite its one-game losing streak, though, Dickey said he knows his team has a worthy opponent ahead of it.

"They're a quality team coming out of a tough league like the WPIAL," he said. "You know you'll get a tough opponent. Nothing will change in that regard. They played Blackhawk and got shutout 1-0, but that was a real quality pitcher they faced. They don't make mistakes, and they're fundamentally sound."

Being the ninth-straight time the Chucks have made the opening round of the PIAAs, one might think their experience would be a positive factor. But with a young roster this season, Dickey said that while it helps a bit with the preparation end, the game ultimately comes down to who executes best on the field when the game begins.

"It's always good to have been there and know what to expect," he said. "We're not as experienced as we were last year, but a lot of these guys have been through the fire. I don't know that it's a tremendous advantage, but it helps a bit with the preparation. The guys who've been there can kind of relay the experience on to the other guys, and hearing it from your peers is different than from your coaches. Once the first pitch is thrown, though, you can throw that out, and it's all about executing."

The Lady Chucks, who earned their fifth-consecutive District IX title with the 7-1 win over the Lady Dutch, will open the tournament this afternoon with a 4 p.m. contest against Mountour, District VII's king seed, at North Allegheny High School.

The Lady Chucks finished the regular season with an 11-6 record and improved that record to 12-6 with their third win of the season over St. Marys' ace pitcher, Rachel Ginther.

Montour concluded the season with an 18-5 record, including its 7-0 win over Forward in the WPIAL championship game.

Punxsy head coach Alan Pifer said the Lady Chucks' coaching staff had an opportunity to check out Montour's championship game against Forward.

"We had a chance to scout them Thursday," Pifer said. "They're an impressive team; they hit the ball well; and they have a good pitcher. But with that being said, it boils down to us going out there and playing our game. If we play close to what we did against St. Marys — put the bat on the ball, limit our mistakes in the field and our pitchers perform — I think we can play with anybody."

Last Wednesday, Punxsy received another strong pitching performance from one of its two top starters — Randa Depp — who along with Ashley Bacha has combined to work the majority of the Lady Chucks' innings this season.

Depp pitched a complete-game in the D-IX title game — allowing just one run in the seventh inning — to continue a strong senior campaign.

On the offensive end, the championship game was highlighted by Chelsea Engeholm's two-hit, two-RBI performance and a pair of hits, including a double, by freshman Ivy Phillips. Senior Janie Depp-Hutchinson also sparked a rally off Ginther with a double of her own.

The Lady Chucks were also the beneficiaries of some help, with their aggressive base running paying off, as they scored a pair on the same wild pitch.

Punxsy will have to be firing on all cylinders to down the Lady Spartans, whose potent offense and powerhouse pitcher led them to the WPIAL title and an 18-5 record. As a team, Montour hit a combined .381 this season led by junior Stacey Capp's .549 batting average and 10 doubles.

Three other Lady Spartans — Alyssa McMurtrie, Allison Hryadil and Kaitlyn Kutchman — hit over .400 this season.

With a good hitting team, Pifer said he knows the importance of his team members fielding their positions well — an area in which the Lady Chucks have shined at times this year and not so much at other times.

"They're a good hitting team, and their stats bear that out," Pifer said. "We just need to limit the mistakes we make in the field. Some of the games we lost this year, we were kind of our own worst enemy. If we play our kind of game, though, and stay ahead or even for the most part, we can do some things to put some pressure on them. We'll go from there and see what happens."

From inside the circle, the season has been a one-horse show, with Kutchman as the sole pitcher for the Lady Spartans all year.

She has worked 151 innings and has allowed just 24 earned runs over the course of those innings for a 1.11 ERA.

"She has a variety of pitches, and she moves them around well," Pifer said. "She has decent control, but when you get to this level, you expect a team to have a dominant pitcher, so it's nothing we didn't expect. We have some strong pitchers on the schedule, and I think we've seen pitchers of her caliber before. I think the girls are confident, and I think we're ready to play."

While this time of year always feels like "icing on the cake" for players and coaches after reaching the goal of earning a district title, that doesn't mean either team wants to win any less than they did in their respective title games.

"Like coach Dickey has said, winning District IX is great, and this is something extra," Pifer said. "We hope to continue and take things one step at a time. I try to distill in our program to never overlook anybody. So, we take it one game at a time. I've always believed that the team who wins a game isn't always the best team, but the team that played best that day. It's a one game at a time thing."