Second baseman Megan Helminiak did not know it was there, but something made her reach inside her glove. Against the odds, she had stopped a Crisena Harer rocket hit toward center and there the ball was. She pulled out it out and flipped to shortstop Emily Sholder, completing a rally-stifling play.
An inning earlier, catcher Rachel Danneker somehow made a highlight reel catch against the fence. Neumann has talented athletes but something, someone else seemed to be helping them Monday at Elm Park. While there is no documented proof, all those associated with Neumann softball knew what was happening. They had an angel on their shoulders and he would not let them fail.
Danneker, Helminiak, Maddie Dincher, Stephanie Fernandez and Meghan Trenholm had two hits each and Morgan Kriner threw a 7-hit complete-game Monday as Neumann honored late coach Ray Perchinski on "Coach Ray Day," defeating Montgomery, 12-4. The Knights (8-10) beat Montgomery for the first time in more than a decade and honored their beloved coach of the past five seasons in the best way possible.
Morgan Kriner of St. John Neumann pitches as first baseman Cassandra Crouse and Montgomery’s Lexi McHenry look on Monday at Elm Park. View additional photos at cu.sungazette.com.
"Coach Ray was definitely with us. I could feel him today," said Danneker, who played with Perchinski from seventh through 11th grade. "The energy today was so much better than it has been in past games. Everyone knew Ray was here and he was looking out for us."
Neumann kept both its playoff hopes and Perchinski's spirit alive. The Knights have made a six-win improvement, have their best numbers in years and have been the area's most improved team this season. They have heavy hearts, but remain strong. And they know that somewhere, Perchinski is looking down smiling.
That was especially true yesterday. Following an emotional pregame ceremony that culminated with Perchinski's wife Colleen and daughter Mallory throwing out first pitches, the Knights played a game that was pure Perchinski. Every starter reached base at least once, Kriner pitched a smart game, athletes young and experienced made outstanding players and they stayed loose and relaxed.
"They were pumped up from the start and they had fun too," Neumann coach Mark Temons said. "They were in tears and as emotional as the beginning of this game was, it was quite a performance. It was not supposed to be a memorial to Coach Ray. It was supposed to be an honor of Coach Ray and his spirit and they took it as that. From the opening pitch they were smiling and they were laughing exactly like Ray was."
Danneker's first inning RBI double erased Montgomery's only lead and Neumann scored six second-inning runs while seizing control. Fernandez (2 for 4) and Dincher (2-4) hit consecutive singles that produced three runs and Trenholm (2 for 4) capped the rally with an RBI single.
Montgomery (7-9) cut the deficit to 7-4 in the fourth inning but Neumann's seniors delivered three straight hits that pushed the lead back to 10-4. Sholder doubled before Danneker and Trenholm singled. Helminiak added a RBI single and Kriner shut down Montgomery the rest of the way. The freshman improved to 6-3, kept Montgomery off-balance and stayed upbeat following errors while beating a team that scored 14 runs against Neumann last week.
"It was very satisfying to see everyone was doing their part to help the team out," said Danneker, who went 2 for 2 with two walks. "We were showing Ray that we were doing this for him."
Rachel Hite and Reilly Gearhart each had two hits for Montgomery, which has a chance to get back to .500 today when it hosts Bucktail for a doubleheader. Gearhart also threw out two runners trying to steal and Kaylie Harer made some nice plays at shortstop.
While it made seven errors, Neumann also made impressive plays that changed the game's complexion. Helminiak's second-inning stop and toss prevented Montgomery from taking the lead while setting the tone. Rebecca Helminiak and Amanda Lisi made nice catches in the outfield and whenever Montgomery seemed to be poised for a rally, someone seemed to be there to stifle the rally.
A year ago, Neumann was one of the district's youngest teams and won just two games. Perchinski remained upbeat, saying how excited he was to see where this team was in a year or two. The Knights have provided those answers throughout the season, making tremendous progress and winning more games than all but two teams in program history. It was Perchinski's day yesterday but it also has been his year and these are his girls.
How proud he must be.
"To come this far and turn around from 2-18 is phenomenal. I'm so proud of what the team is doing and how well we're playing together now," Danneker said. "From the beginning of the season until now we have all improved 10 times, if not more."
"One of the things I think these girls have learned is that they can win and they can play at this level and they can be successful and be winners," Temons said. "That is wonderful and is a great tribute to Coach Ray's memory."
Montgomery102 100 0-4 7 3
Neumann160 302 x-12 12 7
Francesca Shreck, Hannah Bryson (2) and Reilly Gearhart. Morgan Kriner and Rachel Danneker. W-Kriner, (6-3). L-Shreck, (3-1).
Top Montgomery hitters: Kaylie Harer 1-4, 2B; Gearhart 2-4, RBI; Rachel Hite 2-4, R; Lexi McHenry 1-3. Top Neumann hitters: Stephanie Fernandez 2-4, 2 R, RBI; Maddie Dincher 2-4, 2B, 2 RBI; Emily Sholder 1-3, 2B, 2 R; Danneker 2-2, 2B, RBI, 3 R; Meghan Trenholm 2-4, 2 RBI, 2 R, 2 SBs; Megan Helminiak 2-3, RBI, R.
Records: Neumann 8-10. Montgomery 7-9.