South plays in state game for first time in 8 years

Left fielder Roxie Keller turned, ran a few steps, stuck her glove high and made the District 4 Class A championship-clinching catch. Without breaking stride, she ran toward, and hugged, center fielder Lizz Cummings.

Then the sprinting started. A dogpile was forming in the infield and neither Keller, nor Cummings wanted to miss out. Keller landed on top and enjoyed the view.

“It was indescribable. I just turned around and hugged Lizz because I was so excited,” Keller said. “When we ran in I didn’t want to be on the bottom, that’s for sure. That’s a team there. You do it together. That’s why you get on the dogpile.”

The celebration was not just about a championship either. It really was the culmination of a team-wide restoration project.

South softball features one of District 4’s proudest traditions, having played in three state finals and winning the 2003 Class A crown. In 2011, though, the Mounties missed the playoffs for the first time in more than 15 years. Things did not seem the same and South was becoming just another program.

Coach Scott Stugart set out on quickly changing that. The Mounties could not accept losing and could not accept doing anything but their best. A steady climb began and South returned to the playoffs in 2012. The climb continued last year as South won its first playoff game since 2009 and reached the district semifinals.

And now they are back on top.

South defeated Bloomsburg, 5-2, Thursday and won the program’s first district title since 2006. The Mounties (16-6) recorded three consecutive district comeback wins and play their first state tournament game in eight years today at Mid Valley High School against District 2 champion Old Forge.

“Our goal last year was to restore the legacy and we did that,” senior shortstop Kalynn Wheeland said. “This year we keep improving and hopefully we can just keep going.”

Restoring the legacy was the motto Stugart came up with prior to last season. He gathered South for a preseason meeting and showed them a collection of articles compiled over the years featuring teams which exceeded expectations and won championships and/or made extended postseason runs. The message was clear. It was time for South to stop reading about others.

It was time for South to make its own headlines.

“It’s not acceptable to say it was someone else’s year or they’re such a great team and we showed up anyhow,” Stugart said he told the team. “There was a legacy here for softball and it’s not that far removed and you can restore it and it’s up to you guys to do it.”

They did.

South made huge strides last year, winning eight of its last nine games and coming within a game of the state tournament. Seniors Sarah March, Jourdan Boehmer and Rachel Floyd helped lead that resurgence, but the Mounties did not slow down after that group graduated. New leaders emerged, new players like Keller, Paige Lentz and Alanna Herrera developed.

Things did not always go smoothly and a three-game losing streak dropped South to 3-4. But the Mounties regrouped, came together and kept getting better. Different players making big plays, delivering big hits and dealing clutch pitches combined with a refuse-to-lose mentality spurred South throughout the postseason, and made it champions.

“We were confident that we were going to do something big,” said Keller, who delivered a game-tying, two-out, two-run, fourth-inning single. “We worked so hard all season. There were some rough patches definitely but we never stopped believing and this is why you play softball.”

South dethroned two-time defending district champion Northeast Bradford while avenging last year’s semifinal loss, rallying from a one-run, seventh-inning deficit. It avenged another defeat against Muncy, overcoming a two-run, sixth-inning deficit as Kelsey Gantz delivered four RBIs in the 5-4 win.

That victory clinched a state playoff berth but South was not satisfied. It wanted something more. It wanted a legacy and a permanent reminder of its accomplishments. The Mounties earned it the hard way, erasing that 2-0, fourth-inning deficit and playing stellar defense over the final six innings as Anna Steer ended several threats with gutty pitching in the 5-2 win.

The Mounties have risen from the ashes. They are right back where they want to be, another great opportunity in front of it.

South has had several great teams throughout its history. This squad has now become one of the best and it has the proof.

“We pass out sheets and have them fill out their goals in the preseason and the majority of them were winning districts and getting to states,” Stugart said. “They wanted that banner up there and they wanted that legacy.”