STATE COLLEGE - Warrior Run's players lined the third-base line, trying to hold off tears of disappointment as their fans stood behind the team's dugout and offered a final round of applause for an unforgettable season.
The Defenders accomplished many firsts in 2012: a first league championship, first District 4 title and a first appearance in a PIAA championship game. One day that will matter to the girls that stood shoulder-to-shoulder on Beard Field at Penn State University on Friday afternoon as they had silver medals draped around their necks, but the way the Defenders lost in yesterday's PIAA Class AA championship game will likely linger for some time.
District 7 third-place finisher Neshannock scored the game-winning run in the bottom of the eighth inning for a 4-3 victory on a wild pitch and captured that program's first PIAA softball title while keeping the Defenders from their first.
Warrior Run pitcher Taylor Parker walks off the field as Neshannock celebrates behind her after the Lancers won the state championship on a wild pitch in the bottom of the eighth inning Friday at Penn State. View additional photos at cu.sungazette.com
"To lose in the bottom of the eighth inning on a passed ball, that is tough," said Warrior Run coach Garth Watson. "We just came up on the short end of the stick, but we have nothing to hang our heads about."
Madison Altmyer, who led off the bottom of the eighth inning, put Neshannock in position to win by turning on an 0-1 Tay Parker pitch and driving it down the right-field line and to the wall. She quickly picked up her third-base coach rounding second base and reached third without a throw.
Two batters later, Altmyer darted home after the wild pitch and scored an historic run before she was swallowed by her teammates.
"It was kind of no hesitation, just got to go," said Altmyer. "I wasn't really expecting it because she is a good pitcher and it hadn't happened all game."
Parker's final pitch sailed over catcher Lynn Vermilya and bounced off the backstop. The ball took a fortunate bounce for the Defenders and ricocheted straight back to Vermilya, who caught the ball and tried to outrace Altmyer to the plate, but the sophomore catcher couldn't drop the tag in time and the Lancers celebrated between her and their dugout.
Neshannock (24-1) became just the second team to defeat the Defenders (24-3) this season. District 4 runner-up Mifflinburg beat Warrior Run twice in the regular season, each time by a run.
Warrior Run fell behind by two runs after the first inning yesterday as Neshannock immediately showed off its team speed. Rayanna Furst led off with a bunt single, but didn't spend much time at first after Madison Shaffer slapped a single past Warrior Run third baseman Devin Nicholas that also eluded the glove of left fielder Katy Swartz and made its way down the left-field line.
"We knew exactly what they were going to do, but they were effective with that drag bunt," said Watson. "You see some small colleges and they don't drag bunt and slap like that."
By the time Swartz reached the ball and returned it to the infield, Furst and Shaffer had circled the bases for a 2-0 lead.
Warrior Run battled right back with a pair of runs in the second inning. The Defenders strung together three consecutive hits and scored on an illegal pitch and RBI groundout from Carisa Swartz.
The Defenders took their only lead an inning later. Parker drove a pitch into the right-center field gap and Jackie Clemens chased the center fielder to the other gap in left-center field and traded places with Parker. Clemens, however, remained stranded and Warrior Run left a runner in scoring position for the third consecutive inning.
Warrior Run left a runner on base in each inning and all but one of those were left in scoring position.
"We put ourselves in position to score, but we just couldn't get it done," said Watson.
Neshannock tied the game in the third as Furst again led off and reached on a bunt. She scored when a Marissa DeMatteo bunt found its way through the Warrior Run infield and into the outfield grass for an unlikely RBI single.
Parker and Amanda Furst each dodged trouble over the next four innings before Altmyer's leadoff triple in the eighth turned into the winning run.
Neshannock left the bases loaded in the fourth inning after Parker snagged a line drive and the Lancers had their leadoff hitter reach in the fifth and sixth but Parker didn't allow either runner to reach past second base.
Parker finished with eight strikeouts, including three consecutive to end the sixth inning. She walked one, hit two and threw just the one wild pitch.
"I feel bad for her," said Watson. "She's a great kid and the game definitely didn't come down to that."
Parker, who was hitting over .600 entering Friday's game, finished 3 for 4 with two doubles Carra Rishel added two singles.
Carisa Swartz is the lone senior starter who will not return next season, but leaves knowing the program is in a better place than it was her freshman season.
"It's so much better than it was," said Swartz. "Three years ago we looked like the Bad News Bears. We definitely looked a lot better this year and they are going to keep getting better because our coaching staff is amazing."
She later added, "I think that they are going to build on it definitely and they are going to let this soak in and then come back next year and make sure they come out on top."