D4 softball might be due again

If it is an even year that means District 4 is due for a state finalist.

Loyalsock captured the Class AA crown in 2008, Jersey Shore and Montgomery reached finals in 2010 and Southern Columbia and Warrior Run advanced in 2012. Ok, maybe the even years is just a coincidence. District 4 playing elite softball is the main reason so many teams reach the state’s biggest stage.

Class AAA

(4 teams, champion advances)

Either Milton or Jersey Shore has won the last eight district championships and they have played in six of those finals. Milton, seeking its ninth straight finals appearance, has the clearer path back and earned the district’s top seed. The Black Panthers (16-3) open against Shamokin while No. 3 Jersey Shore faces No. 2 Mifflinburg.

Milton started 11-0, went undefeated in the HAC-I and swept Shamokin, rallying for an 11-9 win days before routing it, 17-5. The Panthers hit well throughout the lineup and pitcher Taylor Batman is 13-2. Catcher Mackenna Miller is one of the field’s best players and is a force at the top of the lineup while Batman has hit five home runs. Milton has performed well in close games, beating Jersey Shore, 6-5 in 10 innings and Mifflinburg, 6-5 a week later.

Shamokin (10-9) started strong, opening 5-0 and defeated CMVT, 8-3 Thursday to earn a second straight berth. The Indians beat Athens in last year’s semifinals before losing to Milton. Shamokin has a solid lineup and had nine hits off Batman in the teams’ first meeting.

Jersey Shore swept two one-run games from Mifflinburg and has won three straight by one run, including two in extra innings. The Wildcats (14-4) feature a strong lineup that hits well throughout and are a fundamentally-sound team.

Jersey Shore (14-5) is seeking its second straight championship and fourth in five years. The Bulldogs are fairly young but played well down the stretch and are a battle-tested team, facing a demanding non-conference schedule. Pitcher Rebecca Caputo was brilliant in last year’s postseason and the offense has produced well all season. Averie Lorson, Jess Allen, Kaitlyn Cowfer, Brianna Stetts and Jess Willits are some of the players having big years. Stetts has provided pitching depth also, going 6-1. Jersey Shore is in the semifinals for a 10th straight season.

Player to Watch-Kaitlyn Cowfer, Jersey Shore: One of the team’s most valuable players, Cowfer is a hard hitter who has slammed two home runs this season while hitting a game-winning double in an 8-7 late-season win over Mifflinburg. Cowfer also homered in that game and is among the team leaders in RBIs.

Projected Final: Milton over Mifflinburg

Class AA

(9 teams, champion advances)

Survive this always tough field and one has a good chance of making a run in states. That makes it a joke that District 12, which is perennially a state-level punching bag, gets two berths and District 4 just one.

Top-seeded Central Columbia (18-2) is trying to win its third championship since 2009. The Blue Jays might have the field’s deepest offense and have nearly every starter back from last year’s semifinalist. Central faces either No. 8 CMVT or No. 9 Montoursville who play Tuesday in Bloomsburg. CMVT (13-6) is hitting .344 as a team and pitcher Hope Witchey is 12-5 with a 1.76 ERA.

Montoursville (10-9) is a dangerous team that lost one-run games to Central and Milton while also beating Towanda. The Warriors have made a four-win improvement this season and have a nice mix of strong senior leaders and talented younger players. Kelsey Stine is one of the field’s best catchers, Cayla Treaster is a hard-nosed pitcher and freshmen Lexi Marchioni and Marlene Bassett have both made big impacts as has sophomore Kourtney Phillips.

Tuesday, No. 4 Southern Columbia hosts No. 5 Wellsboro. Southern (15-5) has flourished despite losing most of the starters from last year’s district quarterfinalist. Pitcher Taylor Hoffman has had a big hitting season. Southern overcame 7-0 and 9-0 deficits to beat Central and Shamokin and is never out of a game.

Wellsboro (14-5) has as much talent as any team in the field and might have had a breakthrough win last week, battering South Williamsport, 13-3. The Hornets had struggled in big games prior to that, but delivered 11 hits and received solid pitching from Brooke Kohler. Alexa Singer also has thrown well, winning 10 games while catcher Paige Carr has been one of the team’s most consistent hitters. Wellsboro has nearly every player back from last year’s playoff team and started the season 10-1.

No. 2 Troy (16-3) is a perennial title contender that rarely beats itself, has good pitching and a balanced offense. It faces No. 7 Towanda which also could make a title run as pitcher Alaina Wickwire is experienced and talented. Wickwire threw a five-hit game in a 1-0, 9-inning quarterfinal loss to Loyalsock last year.

No. 3 Loyalsock (16-4) is the field’s hottest team, winning 10 straight games and snapping Central’s 15-game winning streak last Thursday with a dramatic 11-10 win. The Lancers overcame some midseason adversity, captured the strong Williamsport Tournament and ended their season with five straight wins over playoff teams. Kayla Gee was brilliant in the season’s second half and has allowed five hits or fewer in her last six starts while Allison Czap went 4 for 4 against Central. Allie Pagana, Kendall Watkins and Cellina Salvatori also have had outstanding seasons for a team trying to reach its second straight final.

Best quarterfinal-Wellsboro at Southern: The team’s are evenly matched and both played thrillers in their playoff openers last year. Don’t be surprised if they do so again.

Tournament Sleeper-Wyalusing: Loyalsock’s reward for ending the season so strong is a game against the field’s other hottest team. Wyalusing, a perennial title contender, has won seven straight and made a statement about how dangerous it is last Thursday, handing Troy its only NTL loss.

Player to Watch-Sarah Ingerick, Wellsboro: The sophomore shortstop can do it all and is one of her team’s best hitters. Ingerick has excellent defensive range and has had at least three hits four times.

Projected Semifinals: Central Columbia over Southern Columbia; Troy over Loyalsock

Projected Final: Central over Troy

Class A

(10 teams, finalists advance)

Usually, Class AA features the district’s deepest and most unpredictable field but Class A gives it a good run this season. Consider that two-time defending champion and 2013 state semifinalist Northeast Bradford is a No. 5 seed and one gets an idea how strong the field is.

Muncy (16-4) earned the top seed after winning a share of its second straight HAC-III championship and is seeking its first finals appearance since 2009. The Indians played a tougher schedule this season and that could pay big dividends. Pitcher Amanda Kustanbauter has been excellent for a third straight year, winning 13 games and Emily Shnyder provides pitching depth while also adding a big bat to the middle of the lineup. The Indians are experienced and feature a quality lineup that has surging Natalie Lamoreuax near the top and promising freshman Sarah Miller in the middle. Miller hit a home run in a 9-0 win over Warrior Run in Muncy’s last game.

Muncy hosts either No. 9 Montgomery or No. 8 Canton in Friday’s quarterfinals. No. 9 Red Montgomery (10-10) came a long way in the second half, winning 7 of 10 games to qualify after losing six straight. Seniors Kaylie Harer and Rebecca Hite have had terrific seasons while sophomore catcher Reilly Gearhart has had some big games. Montgomery swept No. 6 Benton, beating it 7-3 last week to clinch a playoff berth for an 11th straight year.

Canton (10-10) won its last five games to qualify, making a big turnaround. The lineup is tough and has produced six runs or more in four of its last five wins. Included in that stretch was a 10-4 win over Montgomery in which Kellsy Ross threw a four-hitter. Canton is making its first playoff appearance in 2008 under first-year coach Jill Ward who was the staff ace on the 2000 Canton state champion.

South Williamsport dropped to No. 4 after losing to Wellsboro last week and hosts No. 5 Northeast Bradford. The Mounties (13-6) have been hard to figure at times, struggling early, dominating in the middle and staggering a bit at the end. When South is clicking it has title potential. Lizz Cummings has hit an area-high six home runs, shortstop Kalynn Wheeland is an all-state candidate once again and Kelsey Gantz had a big second half. Pitcher Anna Steer threw well in last year’s postseason and has won 10 games while Alana Stugart has been solid near the top of the lineup.

No. 2 Cowanesque Valley (14-5) has its highest seed in 10 years and has made big strides this season, while capturing the NTL-II championship and sweeping NEB. The Indians have consistently scored a lot of runs and have won seven of their last eight. Pitcher Shanelle Ianson has won seven games and is a reliable hitter while Julie Brubaker, Jess Prutsman and Lexi Huyler also are among players having quality seasons. The Indians host either No. 10 Galeton or No. 7 Line Mountain in Thursday’s quarterfinals.

No. 3 Bloomsburg (14-5) reached last year’s championship and has a lot of those players back, including pitcher Emily Wawroski, who also is a strong hitter. The Panthers split two games with Muncy as well as the HAC-III crown and have played good non-league games against teams like Loyalsock and Central.

The Panthers face No. 6 Benton (10-9) which is in the playoffs for a second straight year and has a good pitcher in Elizabeth Schaefer.

Best quarterfinal-NEB vs. South: Both teams could win this championship and met in last year’s semifinals with NEB winning, 3-0.

Tournament sleeper-Northeast Bradford: The Panthers have reached states six straight seasons, winning three championships. They have a good core back from last year’s team and have a lot of playoff experience. Keep an eye on Line Mountain too which features a strong offense.

Player to Watch-Francesca Shreck, Montgomery: The senior has come up huge down the stretch in her final season. Shreck went 6-1 in the season’s second half and also has provided some consistent hitting. Shreck delivered three straight two-hit games in must-win situations last week as Montgomery won all three.

Projected Semifinals: NEB over Muncy; Bloomsburg over Cowanesque Valley

Projected Final: Bloomsburg over NEB

Dr. Masse’s Top Five: 1. Loyalsock (16-4); 2. Milton (16-3); 3. Jersey Shore (14-5); 4. Williamsport (10-8); 5. Wellsboro (14-5)

Player of the Week-Jess Allen: Allen went 6 for 8 in games against playoff-bound Central Mountain and Shamokin while adding two doubles. She had identical 3 for 4 with a double stat lines in the two wins.