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Decade’s best No. 4: Missing fingernail didn’t stop Jessell from helping Sock win 2018 playoff game

Rhiallie Jessell spent the previous night in the emergency room.

She spent the next one celebrating a district championship and a heroic performance.

Jessell had been spiked in the hand inadvertently while fielding a throw from home in the District 4 Class AAA semifinals a day earlier against Lewisburg. The fingernail on her right middle finger was pulled up. She played the remainder of that game but had the nail cut off later that night and her status for the championship against Warrior Run was in doubt. Jessell could barely grip the bat, but soldiered on.

Then she delivered her career-defining performance for the Lancers.

Jessell shook of the pain, went 2 for 4 and crushed a fourth-inning, three-run home run, which ultimately was the difference, as Loyalsock defeated Warrior Run, 6-4, and captured its first district championship since 2008. How important Jessell’s home run was became apparent in the seventh inning when Warrior Run fought back from a five-run deficit, scored three times and put the tying runs on base to turn this game into a classic.

“I was worried about my hitting because I couldn’t grip the bat so I got with (Coach) Tom (O’Malley) to go over different grips before the game,” Jessell said afterward. “But it was the district final so I had to give it a shot to play.”

Jessell earned all-state and Sun-Gazette Player of the Year honors that season. The senior catcher hit .538 and drove in 31 runs, but the defense and leadership she provided were equally important. Earlier that season, Jessell arrived as the first pitches were being thrown at Warrior Run due to an AP art exam running long. She went 4 for 4 that day and keyed a 10-6 win. No matter the situation, Jessell always found a way to be there for her team.

“She has nine more fingers,” O’Malley said as he laughed. “She’s a competitor and she came up big with her three RBIs.”

Loyalsock’s offense often came up big in 2018, hitting a district-best .421. Shortstop Sam Stopper also hit .538 and drove in a district-high 45 runs. Juliana Cruz and Katie Welker each hit over .500, and freshman Summer McNulty was over .400. Cruz also pitched well and Loyalsock entered the district final having won 11 games in a row.

Warrior Run was the last team to beat Loyalsock when all-state pitcher Madi Waltman struck out 11 in a 7-1 April victory at Short Park. The Lancers won the rematch in Turbotville and both teams shared the HAC-III championship. Warrior Run entered the final 16-3 and was playing in its first district final since 2013. Waltman went 12-5 with a 1.75 ERA and 159 strikeouts and was part of a potent offense which hit a collective .385. Shortstop Haley Miller hit .500, third baseman Gina Beyer .419 and Megan Herriman added 25 RBIs.

The Defenders survived a quarterfinal scare and beat Bloomsburg, 4-3, in 10 innings. Waltman threw a two-hit shutout with nine strikeouts in a 9-0 semifinal win against 2017 finalist North Penn-Liberty and the stage was set for the rubber match in a highly entertaining series.

Cruz, Stopper, Jessell and Maegan Reitz sparked the offense combining for 11 hits and six runs. That quartet helped Loyalsock build a 3-0 lead. Cruz and a strong defense protected that lead and first baseman Mari Houseknecht made a series of crucial plays which played a pivotal role in the outcome. Her most impressive came in the third inning when she did a full split while fielding a throw from third baseman Bella Barone as the two took a hit from Amber Pentycofe.

“I’ve been doing it since middle school, it just comes natural in some situations,” Houseknecht said. “I don’t plan on it, but it just happens.”

Jessell was not planning on hitting a home run when she batted an inning later. With two runners on, she was just trying to drive in at least one and reach base herself to keep the rally going. Instead, she delivered the hit of her life, smashing the three-run home run over the left-center field fence and giving Loyalsock a 6-0 lead.

It felt like Jessell’s home run was the fatal blow for Warrior Run even after it scored a run in the bottom of the fourth. The Defenders trailed 6-1 entering the seventh and Loyalsock was ready to celebrate the second district championship in program history. But then Gracy Beachel singled. Then Jade Swartz singled.

Then Beyer belted a one-out, three-run home run. Just like that, Warrior Run had pulled within 6-4 had the heart of its order coming up. A year earlier, South Williamsport had produced a near identical seventh-inning rally after trailing 6-1 and won 7-6 against Loyalsock.

When Hannah Michael followed the home run with a walk and Waltman singled, it seemed like Loyalsock history might be repeating itself. Miller was up next and rocketed a line drive. Stopper, however, was perfectly positioned and caught the smash. Thinking the ball was going through, Michael had left second and Stopper flipped to McNulty for the force, completing a championship-clinching double play. A few inches either way and the game continues. That was how close this blockbuster of a championship was.

“I was the winning run, but I really wasn’t thinking about that when I got to the box,” Miller said. “She threw it down the middle and I hit it hard. It is what it is. We knew we couldn’t give up.”

Warrior Run didn’t give up and it showed its resiliency in states, beating District 3 champion Brandywine Heights in a 7-6 thriller before losing a 1-0 heartbreaker to North Schuylkill in the quarterfinals. Loyalsock lost to defending and eventual repeat state champion Holy Redeemer, 4-1, in the first round of states. But how it won its district title best revealed how this team was.

“I’m very proud of everyone on the team,” O’Malley said. “It was a total team effort.”

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