Lady Chucks hope to make it 3-for-3

PUNXSUTAWNEY — A torrential downpour knocked down branches across town Sunday evening and chased the Lady Chucks softball team inside for practice.

But despite the rain, Punxsy head coach Alan Pifer said the squad had one very good reason to squeeze in the practice while it still could: A very worthy opponent.

The Lady Chucks will face St. Marys today in the D-IX Class AAA Softball Championship.

"With the weather the way it was (Sunday), we wanted to go to the field, but that just wasn't an option," Pifer said Sunday after the Lady Chucks' indoor practice. "I didn't want to give them a day off, though, simply because of the fact that the game had already been moved from Wednesday to (today) and taken away one day to prepare. And with someone like St. Marys and our hitting being up and down at times this year, we wanted to get all we could out of practices."

St. Marys finished the season with an impressive 14-4 record, with two of those losses coming to the Lady Chucks.

Their potent-at-times offense was led by Emily Sorg, who hit .393 and led the team in runs scored with 24.

Punxsy's sticks had their moments this season, but at times, the hits just didn't seem to come when they were needed.

But the good news for the Lady Chucks is that a long layoff between games — as they earned the top seed over St. Marys and Clearfield and forced the two to play each other last week — gave them an opportunity to polish the areas they needed to.

"Practice has been going pretty well," Pifer said. "We even had a scrimmage the other day against Cranberry, and that went pretty well, too. I've seen some good things, though, and hopefully that translates (today)."

Thanks to solid pitching on both sides, both regular season meetings between the Lady Dutch and Punxsy have been low-scoring, close affairs.

Punxsy picked up a win in the first game — a road contest that saw the Lady Chucks earn a 2-1, seventh-inning victory over St. Marys.

It was senior Alex Magill who displayed her flair for the dramatic, squeezing home Tori Martin with two outs in the final frame to put Punxsy ahead.

May 1, Punxsy picked up a second dramatic win with a 4-3 victory over the Lady Dutch in Punxsutawney in walk-off fashion.

The two teams entered the home half of the seventh inning tied, and an RBI single by leadoff hitter Chelsea Engeholm closed the deal for Punxsy.

Despite earning back-to-back victories, Pifer warned his team Sunday of the difficulty of the three-peat.

"We have a tough opponent ahead of us," he said. "Just like I told the girls at the end of practice, we can't kid ourselves. We have a very worthy opponent. We beat them twice this year — by one run in the seventh inning. They have a great pitcher; they're well-coached; and they're coming back for blood because we knocked them out of the playoffs last year. It's always tough to beat a solid team three times in one year. We just hope we get the breaks."

With that said, while the Lady Chucks have had that flair for the dramatic all season, Pifer's squad will surely look to jump out to an early lead and stay with the sticks.

As far as jumping out to an early start goes, one Punxsy player has been doing just that all season in leadoff hitter Chelsea Engeholm.

Engeholm has had a knack all season for reaching base, especially during her first at-bat, and her .446 batting average, 19 runs, nine doubles, one triple and one home run are all good proof of that.

But through the regular season, another player actually had the best batting average in Lauren Ball, who hit .448 and was known for rolling over the top of the order efficiently with many of her at-bats coming from the No. 9 hole.

But when walks are factored into the equation, another player comes to the forefront with the team's highest regular season on-base percentage in Ashley Walls, whose .423 batting average and 10 walks gave her a team-high on-base average of .583.

If the offense struggles, though, Punxsy will have to rely on its one-two pitching punch of senior Randa Depp and junior Ashley Bacha — a combo that's done the job for the Lady Chucks over and over this season.

In the first game against the Lady Dutch this year, Depp pitched a solid complete game shutout, striking out 10.

On the season, Depp was efficient all along as the pitcher who saw the most action, going 48 innings and keeping an ERA of 1.90.

She allowed a total of 28 runs, with only 13 being earned, and 50 strikeouts — better than one per inning.

In Bacha's turn against St. Marys during the home contest, she pitched a complete game, as well, allowing three runs, none of which were earned, and she had 11 strikeouts — including three straight in the seventh inning with the score tied at three to set up Engeholm's walk-off.

Bacha's numbers were quite similar to Depp's across the duration of the season, with a 2.38 ERA over 35.1 innings. She also averaged better than one K per inning, fanning 42 total hitters and walking just eight.

After practice Sunday, Pifer said he wasn't quite sure he was ready to make the decision who'd be handed the game ball for the first pitch today, though.

"They're both quality pitchers; like 1A and 1B," he said. "They've both pitched against St. Marys, and both did a great job against them. I'm not 100-percent sure which one I'm going to start yet. But I'm comfortable using either of them, I can say that."

For Punxsy, though, the task of putting runs on the scoreboard will be no easy feat, either, with St. Marys' pitcher Rachel Ginther showing this season she's "no slouch" in Pifer's words.

Ginther pitched almost well enough to win in both games, putting the Lady Dutch in position at the end, and Pifer told his team Sunday it should be prepared for her to do the same thing all over again today.

Her consistency as St. Marys' work horse all season — having pitched 97 of the team's total 111 this year — speaks for itself, with an ERA of 1.08 backing it up quite well.

While the Lady Chucks' pitching duo has done its part to keep their opponents' bats off the ball, Ginther's strikeout total is even more impressive, with her fanning better than one-and-a-half per inning.

But Punxsy has found ways to score runs against Ginther when it needed to this year, and it hopes that magic won't run out this afternoon. And whether it's a one-run pitching duel or the bats come to life and put up a big number, the Lady Chucks are looking for the same result as last year: A District IX title win over St. Marys.

The title game will be played at 4:30 p.m. today in Brockway.