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Decade’s best No. 10: North Penn-Liberty made history in 2017 District 4 semifinal in high school softball

On the surface Wellsboro and rival North Penn-Liberty appeared nearly identical. Both teams had outstanding records and had frequently overpowered the position, each outscoring opponents by nearly 100 runs. Wellsboro and North Penn-Liberty also featured balanced offenses which collectively hit above .300 and possessed dominant all-state pitchers.

But there were two big differences separating these rivals as they prepared to meet in the 2017 District 4 Class AAA semifinals.

First, Wellsboro was accustomed to playoff success, having captured the 2015 District 4 Class AA title and playing in the 2016 AAA final. Before defeating Loyalsock in the 2017 district quarterfinals, North Penn-Liberty had never won a playoff game.

Second, Wellsboro had swept two regular-season games from North Penn-Liberty, winning 9-6 and 5-3. The Green Hornets had long been a thorn in their rival’s side and entered Round III as the favorite.

Following this semifinal, North Penn-Liberty flipped the script and created the only difference it cared about. The Mounties were the ones still standing.

North Penn-Liberty wiped away years of frustration with a four-run sixth-inning rally and rode Savanah Doney’s six-hit pitching and an outstanding defense as it defeated Wellsboro, 4-2. The Mounties also reached both their first district final and state tournament.

“It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life,” Doney said afterward. “When we got that last out it actually hit me that we won when it counted and we pulled through as a team.”

This was the culmination of an impressive three-year climb. North Penn-Liberty endured 14 straight losing seasons before reaching the playoffs in 2015. The Mounties won 14 games in 2016, but suffered a 2-1 extra-inning loss against Muncy in the quarterfinals.

Although it featured only two senior starters, North Penn-Liberty was fairly experienced in 2017 and put together its best season, entering districts with a program-record 15 wins. Doney finished the year 17-6 with a 1.49 ERA and also hit .545. Brooke Harvey drove in 20 runs, Carmen Bates hit .368 and five starters had averages above .500. The Mounties thumped Loyalsock, 14-9, in the district quarterfinals, earning the rematch they coveted since watching a three-run fourth-inning lead turn into a 5-3 loss against Wellsboro a few weeks earlier. North Penn-Liberty had won nine of 10 games entering the semifinals, that Wellsboro game being its only defeat.

Wellsboro had no senior starters, but remained one of the district’s top teams, capturing the NTL-I championship and completing the regular season 17-2. The Hornets won 17 of 18 games en route to the semifinals, blanking Bloomsburg, 4-0, in the quarterfinals after blanking two-time defending District 4 champion Jersey Shore, 3-0, late in the regular season. Future St. Bonaventure pitcher Alyssa Yungwirth earned all-state honors, going 16-2 with a 1.58 ERA and 178 strikeouts. She also was part of a dangerous offense which hit a collective .312 and had a nice blend of experience and youth.

Wellsboro was playing in the semifinals for a fourth straight season and struck first when it scored two third-inning runs. Brianne Keane (2 for 3) and Heidi Zuchowski each hit RBI singles and as the game progressed it looked like two runs might be more than enough to win.

Yungwirth was cruising and looked as dominant as she had in the quarterfinals, taking a one-hitter into the sixth inning. A sea of red and black-clad North Penn-Liberty fans were at the Moser Complex that day and one could start to hear some saying that even if this day ended in a loss it was still a great season.

But the players continued believing. Right fielder Mackenzie Heater made two leaping catches and Harvey, the team’s shortstop, made the play of the game in the fifth inning. Harvey sprinted into shallow left field and somehow extended her entire body to make a spectacular catch which robbed Cathryn Brought of a hit, potentially a double. That play loomed large when Keane followed with a single. Instead of being down, 3-0, North Penn-Liberty remained in striking distance and a fuse was lit.

“You get confidence and momentum from plays like that,” Harvey said.

The power of that confidence was felt throughout the sixth inning. North Penn-Liberty stormed back against one of the state’s top pitchers, drilling five hits and scoring two runs. Bates ignited the game-changing rally with a leadoff triple before scoring on Harvey’s perfectly-placed bunt single. Doney followed with a double and Abby Heatley tied it with a sacrifice fly. It looked like Yungwirth would escape further damage after she recorded the second out and went ahead 1-2 on Emily Strange. Instead the senior second baseman produced the hit of her life, slamming an RBI double into the right-center field gap. Lauren Smith fell behind 0-2 a batter later and capped the rally, lacing an RBI single that made it 4-2.

“They all know they are going to play well and they know at any time any girls can get hot,” North Penn-Liberty coach Lynn Grinnell said. “You saw that.”

“I had two strikes and was pretty nervous, but I just had to be confident and I knew I could hit the ball,” Strange said. “That was a great feeling. It was so great. Once we all started being hot, it spread and we had it.”

Not that Wellsboro made it easy. Heater made another great catch to move North Penn-Liberty within two outs of victory in the seventh, but Yungwirth’s one-out single and Brought’s two-out single put the tying runs on base. Unfazed, Doney induced a game-ending grounder, throwing to first baseman Liz Williams for the final out.

Victory and history were secured and North Penn-Liberty had a moment it will never forget.

“It’s just amazing,” Harvey said. “Especially beating our rivals in such a big game.”

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