For the second time in two weeks, the Pennsylvania College of Technology softball team goes into playoff action with the longest winning streak among the teams competing, and this time a national championship is on the line.
Seeded No. 10, Penn College (18-12 overall) opens play in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association National Championships at Firestone Stadium in Akron, Ohio, at 10 a.m. today against No. 7 New Hampshire Institute of Technology (25-11-1). The winner of that game will face second-seeded Lindenwood University-Belleville at 8 p.m., today, while the loser drops into an elimination game at 6 p.m. that night.
Other teams and their records include top-seeded St. Mary of the Woods College (24-16), No. 3 Ave Maria University (31-29), No. 4 Carlow University (21-18), No. 5 Briarcliffe College (14-11), No. 6 PSU Hazleton (25-14), No. 8 PSU Mont Alto (18-10) and No. 9 Concordia College, Ala. (14-11).
Asked what he is doing to keep his players focused, Penn College coach Roger Harris said, "I think they have pretty much focused themselves. They became focused just before states and since they made nationals they've become even more focused on what they want to do and staying together as a team. Momentum is definitely on their side. They have a stern confidence that they can get the job done."
Despite being seeded lower than two teams they beat en route to winning the Penn State University Conference Athletic Association championship last weekend (PSU Mont Alto, which finished second in the conference, and PSU Hazleton), Harris said the Wildcats are using it as motivation.
"I have a very elite group of girls who are willing to take the cards they are dealt and make something out of it. While the seeding was not something we were really looking forward to happening, we were motivated to take whatever we got and make the best of it," the coach said.
During its 30 games thus far, Penn College has compiled a .296 team batting average with the likes of sophomore Rachael Shaeffer leading the way with a .474 average followed by freshman Jessica Gmerek at .380; sophomore Katie Kratzer and sophomore Delaney Blubaugh both at .333; sophomore Karey Wolfe at .315; and sophomore Alexandra Brennan at .309. Wolfe leads the team with 22 runs batted in and 22 runs scored while Gmerek has driven in 20 runs and scored 20, Sheaffer has 18 RBIs and 17 runs scored, freshman Macie Lucas has driven in 17 and Brennan has 16 RBI. Obviously, production has been spread around.
Freshman Arika Stopper with a 2.04 earned run average and 96 strikeouts, has been the ace of the pitching staff and has gotten timely support from sophomore Kim Walter 2.65 ERA with 25 strikeouts; Blubaugh, 3.09 ERA with 10 strikeouts; and freshman Brianne Brewer 3.83 ERA with 45 strikeouts.
Something else stands out about this Wildcat team: it is made up of all sophomores (nine) and freshmen (six).
"They are very dedicated to each other," Harris said. "These (sophomores) were a very special group that I knew we had coming back. The confidence they have in themselves and in each other ... When we first started out it was a little rocky not having their full trust in their coach, each other and their own ability. But over the last 12-13 games you can see that, as coaches, we have earned their respect and as players they have earned our respect.
"The chemistry that the team has now, going into nationals, is high. I'm motivated and thrilled for these girls and the passion they have for such young players. They have become seasoned ballplayers in a matter of weeks," the coach said.
"I told the girls that you can't be a champion if you can't beat the best. It doesn't matter what card you are dealt or what hand you have, if you can't beat the best team there then you are never going to be a champion," Harris continued.
The key to doing that, Harris said, is to "stay motivated and stay together, to persevere and be able to overcome whatever adversity may hit them throughout. It's not to say they're not going to have a bad game or the pitchers might not have a breakdown, but it's how they handle the adversity that is going to make them the championship team that they truly are."
Overall record: 18-12
Final PSUAC record: 14-4
Monday, May 12 - vs. NHTI in USCAA National Championships at Firestone Stadium in Akron, Ohio, 10 a.m. (other games TBA)
Friday-Sunday, May 16-18 - U.S. Intercollegiate Championships at Long Beach, Calif.