Chris Masse on high school softball: Districts lack favorite, but not talent

Looking for a clear front runner in the District 4 playoff tournaments this season? Good luck. One can debate who should be labeled tournament favorites, but nobody can deny that in all four fields, the championships seem more up for grabs than usual.

So buckle up because these next two weeks should be fun.

Williamsport competes through District 2 in the 6A field and earned the No. 2 seed. The Millionaires (15-4) host No. 3 Delaware Valley today. Williamsport is seeking its ninth straight finals appearance and its first championship since 2012. Instead of letting a series of costly injuries hurt them, the young Millionaires have thrived, going undefeated in Central Penn League play, winning that championship and taking 11 of their last 13 games. Williamsport hits well throughout the roster, batting a collective .368. Five starters are hitting .375 or higher and pitcher Lynna Robertson has come up big, winning 12 games. Top-seeded Hazleton (18-1) has beaten Williamsport in six straight finals and has hit 27 home runs this season. The Millionaires are dangerous, but Hazleton is the pick.

District 4 Class AAAA

(5 teams, champion advances to states)

We start the District 4 breakdown with a deep field featuring perennial powers like defending champion Jersey Shore and Mifflinburg, as well as dangerous Danville, hard-hitting Selinsgrove and 2018 finalist Shamokin.

Jersey Shore (14-5) is the only area team in this tournament and earned the No. 2 seed. The Bulldogs have won three district titles in four years and will play No. 3 Selinsgrove. Jersey Shore hit a bump in the road late in the season but finished strong, beating Danville, 4-1 last Saturday. Kylie Russell and Lexi Schuler both are outstanding pitchers and the offense is solid from top to bottom. Seven starters are hitting above .300 and Jersey Shore split four games against Danville and Mifflinburg while capturing a second straight HAC-I championship.

Selinsgrove (11-9) has scored runs in bunches at times, topping 10 runs five times. The Seals also handed Mifflinburg one of its two league losses, winning their rematch, 2-1. Elise Hessek is hitting .578 and pitcher Samantha Artley is 8-3 with a 3.48 ERA.

Top-seeded Mifflinburg will play either No. 5 Shamokin or No. 4 Danville. Mifflinburg has a strong group that has played together the last few years and that helped it win the 2017 Class AAA title. The Wildcats are hitting .367 with North Carolina State-bound Libby Whittaker batting .456 with seven home runs and 37 RBIs. Left-handed pitcher Vanessa Martin also has 37 RBIs and is 13-3 with a 1.58 ERA.

No. 5 Shamokin (12-8) split two games with Danville, defeating it, 6-5 a few weeks ago. The Indians rallied from a 1-4 start and Andrea Segura is hitting .436 with 14 RBIs.

Tournament sleeper–Danville: The Ironmen have struggled offensively at times, but they have a fantastic pitcher and that makes them mighty dangerous. Sophomore Morgan Wagner is 9-4 with a 1.39 ERA and 160 strikeouts in 90 1/3 innings.

Player to Watch–Arizona Shreck, Jersey Shore: The junior first baseman has enjoyed a breakthrough season, hitting .422, compiling a .536 on-base percentage, driving in 20 runs and scoring 23 times. Shreck also has produced eight multi-hit performances, hitting a home run and five doubles.

Projected Semifinals: Mifflinburg over Danville; Jersey Shore over Selinsgrove

Projected Final: Mifflinburg over Jersey Shore

Class AAA

(8 teams, top two advance)

This is District 4’s deepest and most loaded field. The fact that Montoursville-Loyalsock is a No. 8 vs. No. 1 quarterfinal shows how good this field is. There are no easy games here and how this tournament unfolds should provide exciting viewing.

Defending champion Loyalsock (17-3) captured the HAC-III championship and has won 14 of its last 15 games. The Lancers feature a dynamic offense that is strong top to bottom and have several starters back from last year’s team. Loyalsock has played a tough schedule and pitcher Juliana Cruz is 8-1 while serving as an ideal leadoff hitter. Three players have 27 or more RBIs and the Lancers have scored 49 runs in their last four games, including a 12-0 victory at Jersey Shore.

Montoursville (9-9) is one of the more dangerous No. 8 seeds in recent memory. The Warriors are a few hits or plays from having a much different record, losing five one-run games. Pitchers MacKenzie Weaver and Taylor Shuman both have thrown well and the offense has become more dangerous as the season progressed. Four starters are hitting above .300 and Montoursville scored 29 runs in a late-season four-game span. It split two games with No. 3 Central Columbia and lost by a run against Mifflinburg.

The winner of that game plays either No. 5 Bloomsburg or No. 4 Athens. Both teams are dangerous with Bloomsburg (11-8) defeating Central, 4-3, last Thursday and dropping two heartbreakers against No. 2 Warrior Run. The Panthers have three starters hitting .404 or higher and pitcher Ellen Hull has 60 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings.

Warrior Run split two one-run thrillers against Loyalsock and has a 2018 semifinal rematch against No. 7 North Penn-Liberty. Pitcher Madi Waltman has thrown six straight shutouts and struck out a district-high 258 batters while throwing four no-hitters. She and Central Columbia ace Mea Consentino staged a fantastic duel early this season with Warrior Run winning, 3-0 in 11 innings. The Defenders feature a strong offense as well and Marissa Pick has hit an area-high seven home runs. Five players have at least 13 RBIs and freshman Valandra McHenry is hitting .341 with 14 RBIs.

North Penn-Liberty (11-7) is making its fifth straight playoff appearance and also has a standout pitcher in Savannah Doney. The senior has been one of the district’s best over the last four seasons and has both more than 500 career strikeouts and 100 hits. Doney has 178 strikeouts this season and catcher Mariah Kshir is hitting .434 with 18 RBIs.

Either Wellsboro or Central awaits the Liberty-Warrior Run winner. No. 6 Wellsboro (11-8) won three of its last four games and pitcher Cathryn Brought has allowed two runs or fewer in five of her last six starts. The Green Hornets have hit 15 home runs and Kerrah Clymer has a team-high five, along with 23 RBIs. Catcher Hailey Neal closed her regular season strong and went 6 for 9 in her last three games.

Central (17-3) won the HAC-II title and captured its tournament title last weekend, defeating Selinsgrove and Athens. Consentino is 14-2 with a 1.14 ERA and 200 strikeouts in her debut season and Central is hitting a collective .301.

Tournament sleeper–Athens: Whoever wins the Bloomsburg-Athens game can be dangerous moving forward and the Wildcats (14-4) earned a share of their first NTL-I championship. Senior Emma Adams has gone over 125 career hits while hitting .522 and pitcher Megan Bennett is 11-3 with a 0.90 ERA and 135 strikeouts.

Player to Watch–Jena Boyce, Wellsboro: The sophomore shined during her debut season and has elevated her performance with more experience, hitting .400 with four home runs and 17 RBIs. A good runner as well, Boyce went 2 for 3 with a home run, double and three RBIs in Saturday’s 5-2 win against Troy.

Projected Semifinals: Loyalsock over Athens; Central over Warrior Run

Projected Final: Loyalsock over Central

Class AA

(5 teams, champion advances)

Two-time defending champion Wyalusing has defeated South in the past two finals, but are joined as title contenders by Line Mountain and Troy this season. Top-seeded Wyalusing (17-3) won a share of the NTL-I championship, but Troy beat it 6-3 the second time these teams played. Still, this is a powerful team that reached last year’s state quarterfinals, that defeated Williamsport a few weeks ago and that is hitting .332. Catcher Melody Kneller is hitting .533 with eight home runs, nine doubles and 25 RBIs while pitcher Hailey Jayne is 16-3 with a 1.90 ERA.

Before Troy can think about facing Wyalusing it has to get by No. 5 Muncy in Tuesday’s quarterfinals. The Indians (10-10) are one of the area’s youngest teams, but have made major strides and finished third in the Mid-Penn. Rory Oden is a quality pitcher, the offense is dangerous and five starters have averages of .300 or better. Muncy played No. 3 South Williamsport tough a few weeks ago and could give Troy a battle.

Troy (10-9) has been up and down but showed is potential in that Wyalusing win. Riley McClellan is hitting .544 with eight home runs and Roxanne Kingsley is at .456 with 27 RBIs.

Line Mountain is the field’s hottest team, winning 11 straight games. The Eagles (16-4) highlighted their ascension with a 4-2 win over a Susquenita team that beat it 10-0 early in the season. Line Mountain has uses two pitchers and sophomore Kya Matter is 7-1 with a 0.97 ERA and 124 strikeouts.

Tournament sleeper–South Williamsport: Facing terrific pitchers is nothing new for the Mounties, who have been challenged throughout the season. South (10-8) showed how good it can be a in a big late-season win at Warrior Run, scoring four times in the last two innings to win 4-3. Waltman has thrown six straight shutouts since, highlighting how impressive that win was. Mookie Sauers has pitched some excellent games down the stretch and the offense has good balance. Four-year starting catcher Ashley Gardner is a super leadoff hitter, Lilly Eiswerth homered in each of her last two games, Sydney Bachman and Bella Bachman form a strong tandem on the left side of the infield and Emily Hennigan has hit five home runs.

Player to Watch–Annabelle Bergey, Muncy: The senior left fielder has been one of Muncy’s most valuable players, hitting .483 with seven doubles, 28 runs and 14 RBIs. The four-year starter also has delivered nine multi-hit performances.

Projected Semifinals: Wyalusing over Troy; Line Mountain over South

Projected Final: Wyalusing over Line Mountain

Class A

(5 teams, top two advance)

This is an exciting field that features Bucktail being a top seed for the first time, Northeast Bradford going for a third straight championship and playing Montgomery in a terrific semifinal as well as upset-minded Canton and Galeton teams.

Bucktail (17-2) is having the best season in program history and is in the playoffs for a third straight year after having never made the playoffs before 2017. A team with no seniors, Bucktail shared the Mid-Penn championship with Montgomery, started 14-0 and topped 10 runs 15 times. The Bucks are hitting .437 as a team and freshman Emma Poorman is batting .627 with a district-high 55 RBIs. She also is 12-1 in the pitching circle, forming a nice combination with her older sister Myka who is hitting .553 with 24 RBIs. Myka Poorman, Emily Cross and Tessa Cowfer are three-year starters and have been crucial to turning this program around.

Bucktail faces either Canton or Galeton in the semifinals. No. 5 Canton (10-10) is one of the year’s top stories, reaching the playoffs after going winless last season. The Warriors are still young and loaded with dangerous hitters who have helped the team average nearly seven runs per game.

No. 2 Montgomery meets Northeast Bradford in a showdown of league champions after the Panthers won the NTL-II title. The Red Raiders (16-3) snapped Bucktail’s winning streak and won 15 straight games before dropping their season finale against Lewisburg. Like most teams in this field, Montgomery is young and explosive, hitting well throughout the roster. Different players have taken turns serving as top hitters each game and pitcher Emily Snyder has excelled during her senior year. She is No. 2 on the program’s all-time strikeout list and is one of the team’s most consistent hitters. Montgomery reached last year’s semifinals and is hoping it can turn the tables on NEB after the Panthers won that semifinal a year ago.

NEB also has an explosive offense, batting .403 and hitting 18 home runs. And in a recurring them, this team is young, featuring no seniors. Seven starters are hitting .375 or better and freshman Emilie Susanj is hitting .576 with eight home runs and 35 RBIs.

Tournament sleeper–Galeton: The Tigers (11-7) came on strong down the stretch and senior pitcher Regan Fuller is having a good season, going 11-5 with a 2.96 ERA and 104 strikeouts. Senior Jessie Evans sparks the offense and is hitting .418 with 20 RBIs. Galeton revealed how dangerous it can be when it defeated North Penn-Liberty, 4-3 in eight innings at midseason.

Player to Watch–Morgan Tupper, Montgomery: The sophomore second baseman is having a fantastic season and has been one of the area’s most consistent hitters. Speedy and versatile, Tupper has produced 12 multi-hit performances.

Projected Semifinals: Bucktail over Galeton; NEB over Montgomery

Projected Final: NEB over Bucktail

Dr. Masse’s Top Five: 1. Loyalsock (17-3); 2. Warrior Run (18-2); 3. Williamsport (15-4); 4. Jersey Shore (14-5); 5. Montgomery (16-3)

Players of the Week–Katie Meale, Williamsport and Mari Houseknecht, Loyalsock: Meale helped ignite the potent Williamsport offense, going 4 for 5 with two doubles two runs and an RBI in her team’s two wins. Houseknecht went 3 for 4 with a home run and double as Loyalsock closed its regular season with a 12-0 win at Lewisburg.

–Masse may be reached at cmasse@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse