The snow and sleet falling captured a gloomy atmosphere enveloping the South Williamsport dugout, making it even more depressing. Southern Columbia, a Class A state finalist last year, was on the verge of a mercy-rule win and the Mounties were looking at a long bus ride home.
Suddenly, though, depression turned into ecstasy. South never lost hope, pulled itself from the depths, stunned the mighty Tigers and made an impressive opening statement. South rallied from an 8-run deficit last Wednesday and defeated Southern, 14-10. Despite being down 8-0 in the fourth inning and 8-1 in the fifth, the Mounties kept believing, kept fighting.
It was the team's first game but the South's reaction to its start said as much about it as did the stunning win.
"In the past we've battled that (confidence), but this group really seems to believe in themselves," South coach Scott Stugart said. "There were some nerves Wednesday, being outside only a few times and playing such a good team but they really do believe in themselves and that reinforced it in that game. That was big."
South followed the Southern win with a 13-3 bashing of Bucktail and was a few spectacular Ashleigh Bair plays from beating Loyalsock, losing a thriller, 4-2. The Mounties returned to the playoffs last year but look like a team that could make a quantum leap this season. And that Southern win is a big reason why.
Southern returned most of last year's starters, including outstanding pitcher Mallory Tomaschik. The Tigers are loaded again but South is too and delivered 13 hits over the final four innings against a pitcher who barely was touched in states last year. Freshman pitcher Anna Steer settled down after a rocky start and everyone in the lineup started hitting and making plays.
The message was clear. South believes it can do great things and it will not let any situation, no matter how bleak, deter it.
"We think we can play with anybody," Stugart said. "We have more experience this year than since I've been here and leadership too."
"They are a good team," Bair said. "They are really tough."
Center fielder Rachel Floyd had 10 RBIs in South's first two games while Navy-bound Sarah March hit two home runs. Kaylnn Wheeland added seven hits, Jourdan Boehmer went 3 for 3 against Loyalsock and Alana Stugart delivered six hits in her first two games. The first four players are returning four or three-year starters. Stugart is a freshman. That epitomizes the strong blend of quality experience and young talent South possesses.
The Mounties are a Class A team for the first time since 2004 but have the benefit of playing in the fiercely competitive HAC-II which features Southern and fellow 2012 state finalist Warrior Run. If South qualifies for districts anything seems possible.
It already has proven it can win under nearly impossible circumstances.
"All of our players are practicing harder than any group I've had collectively," Stugart said. "They really feed off each other. We'll see what happens and where this goes, but I like the group."
DYNAMIC DANEKER: In the bottom of the first inning against Loyalsock, Steer made a good pitch to Amanda Daneker. The 3-1 fastball was borderline high and inside. It was the kind of pitch that would retire most hitters. Daneker hit it over the center-field fence for a game-tying, 2-run home run. Welcome to the dilemma that is trying to get out one of the state's best players.
Daneker has hit basically everything thrown her way the past three seasons and she is off to a torrid start in her senior season. The Coastal Carolina-bound catcher is 6 for 7 with two home runs, 6 RBIs and five runs scored. Oh yeah, she also earned the win while pitching for the first time since junior high in the South game and threw out a runner trying to reach third against Hughesville-on a wild pitch.
"Usually that is what you teach a runner, a ball goes in the dirt, you take off," Loyalsock coach and former major leaguer Tom O'Malley said. "She's fun to watch. She might be the best catcher in the state. What a blessing to have somebody like that. You want to be strong up the middle but to have someone like that behind the plate is huge."
Daneker has started every game since her freshman year and looked like a Division I player from the first time she stepped on the field at Short Park. She keeps getting better too, playing all over all summer and becoming as dangerous offensively as she is sensational defensively.
Allie Pagana and Bair hit well in front of Daneker and Allison Czap and Kendall Watkins are effective behind her. That means teams cannot avoid Daneker and that can be a problem.
"The one she hit out was inside out and up on her hands and she forced it right out," Stugart said. "She's tough. I don't know how you pitch her."
EXTRA BASES: Montoursville is young but coach Mike Tate likes his team's toughness. Cayla Treaster held a powerful Central Columbia lineup to one run through six innings in the team's opener and the Warriors blasted Lewisburg, 16-1 the following day ... Jersey Shore pitcher Rebecca Caputo dominated in her first varsity start, throwing a two-hit shutout in a 10-0 win over Midd-West ... Cheslea Heatley homered and pitched a four-hitter as Canton upset Montgomery, 4-2 last Thursday. Montgomery's Colby Heintzelman homered in her first varsity start in that game. Kaylie Harer went 3 for 4 two days later in an 11-1 win over Lewisburg ... Central Mountain will play its first game at its new softball field adjacent to Malinak Football Stadium Tuesday against Williamsport.
Dr. Masse's area softball top five
1. Warrior Run (2-0): The Defenders continued the offensive barrage they started last postseason, scoring 34 runs and collecting 28 hits in convincing wins over Lewisburg and Central Columbia. Warrior Run traditionally struggled with Central before last season but has beaten it four straight times over the last two years. Central has hit Class AA State Player of the Year Tay Parker as well as anyone but Warrior Run's potent offense has made that insignificant. Third baseman Devin Nicholas had four hits against Central and four of Parker's five hits have gone for extra bases.
2. Williamsport (2-0): Those wondering if shortstop Mikayla Bower had fully recovered from last year's serious knee injury can stop doing so. She went 4 for 4 with two doubles and five RBIs in an 11-0 win over Wyalusing. Sister Alexis Bower hit home runs in that win and a 3-2 victory over Hollidaysburg while also allowing just five hits and striking out 28 in those games. The schedule only grows tougher from here but that is the way coach Quint Bower likes it.
"The only way they're going to get better is to play the good teams," Quint Bower said after Williamsport scored twice in the seventh inning to beat Hollidaysburg. "If we go undefeated during the regular season they're not going to learn anything because everything is going to come too easy. Once you get to districts it's a whole new game. They need to have this pressure."
3. Loyalsock (2-0): The Lancers thumped Hughesville 16-0 in their season opener and have benefited from the school's turf football field. Loyalsock not only was able to practice outside more than most teams, it also scrimmaged District 2 powers Hazleton and Nanticoke at the Dome in Wilkes-Barre.
"I wanted to play whoever. I didn't care who it was," O'Malley said. "I wanted to see the best pitchers and give them a little confidence. They all had 15 good at-bats indoors against good competition and that was big."
4. South Williamsport (2-1): Steer and Stugart both threw well last week in their varsity debuts. Alayna Thomas also threw four strong innings against Bucktail. The biggest question mark surrounding South was its pitching and replacing Casey Brewer but the depth and poise look like they are there. It also helps that those pitchers have a reliable catcher like March who is one of the best around.
5. Wellsboro (0-0): The Green Hornets return every player from last year's District 4 Class AA quarterfinalist and made their season debut Monday against Liberty. Both divisions of the NTL have merged but Wellsboro has the players to compete for that inaugural crown.
Player of the Week
Katy Swartz, Warrior Run: The hard-hitting outfielder has not slowed down since coming on strong in last year's playoffs. She had five hits in the team's first two wins, doubling and tripling against Lewisburg before homering vs. Central.
Game of the Week
Jersey Shore at Milton: Friday's game features teams who have won every District 4 Class AAA championship since 2006. Both should be in the title hunt again this year and both almost always play exciting games that are determined by one run. Expect another thriller Friday.