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Decade’s best No. 8: Sam Stopper helped Loyalsock softball excel

One play helped pave a championship path. Another one clinched that championship.

Just past the 2018 season’s halfway point, Loyalsock trailed South Williamsport, 4-1, in the sixth inning and it looked like the Mounties might add on when Sami Branton hit a two-out double down the left-field line. Instead, Lancer shortstop Sam Stopper fielded the relay throw in shallow left field and fired a picture-perfect laser which hit catcher Rhiallie Jessell chest high and allowed her to make a quick tag on the speedy Natalya Steppe and end the rally. Stopper was in the middle of a six-run rally in the bottom half of the inning and Loyalsock won, 7-4. The victory fueled a 12-game winning streak had Loyalsock surging into the District 4 Class AAA final.

“It was huge because of the previous errors we had,” Stopper said afterward. “It was really nice to get that and I think we all needed that to boost our self esteem.”

“That was the play right there,” former Loyalsock coach Tom O’Malley said. “We weren’t making the fundamental plays, but we made the big one when we had to right there. You can talk about the comeback and the hits, but it all started with that throw.”

And it ended with a Stopper catch.

A month later, Loyalsock led Warrior Run, 6-4, in the bottom of the seventh in the district final, but the Defenders had scored three seventh-inning runs and both the tying runs on base and the winning run at the plate. Haley Miller rocketed a line drive that looked like it might find a hole, but Stopper snared it and flipped to second baseman Summer McNulty for a championship-clinching double play. Loyalsock finished that season 18-5, winning just the program’s second district title while adding a second straight HAC-III championship.

“It was a total team effort,” O’Malley said. “I’m glad the girls kept their composure in the final inning and we were able to stop the bleeding to get the win.”

Stopper helped Loyalsock win a lot during four stellar seasons from 2016-19. As the two plays above show, Stopper was an excellent defensive shortstop. Those two plays proved so pivotal and it is ironic in a way because it was Stopper’s powerful bat which so often made the headlines.

People can debate who the area’s best hitter was last decade, but they certainly cannot leave Stopper from that discussion. The four-year starter and three-time all-stater was a demolition expert, blowing up opposing pitching staffs and game plans, collecting more than 125 career hits and driving in more than 125 runs. Stopper never hit lower than .368 and easily topped .500 over her last two seasons while driving in a district-high 87 runs during that time.

Stopper played for three coaches in four years-O’Malley, Craig Weaver Sr., and Mark Godfrey. All three raved about Stopper’s swing, power, intelligence and versatility.

“She is not playing like a freshman,” Weaver said following a 13-0 win at Warrior Run in 2016.

The previous year Weaver expressed how excited he was to know Stopper would be on his roster the next spring. She was special, he said.

Stopper proved that nearly every time she played, helping Loyalsock win that elusive district title as well as four straight league championships. She quickly settled in at shortstop and hit .368 as freshman as Loyalsock went 19-3.

Considering what she did the next three years, opponents got off easy in 2016. Stopper became one of the district’s most feared hitters as a sophomore, becoming the ideal No. 3 hitter in a potent lineup. Stopper hit .474, drove in 30 runs and helped Loyalsock win its final four league games to earn a share of the HAC-III crown.

As impressive as her first two seasons were, Stopper achieved things offensively few before her had in 2018. Starting with an awesome display of hitting at a five-game tournament in Myrtle Beach, Stopper batted .538, drove in a district-best 45 runs and pounded out 19 extra-base hits, including four home runs. With all-state selections Juliana Cruz and Katie Welker hitting in front of her, Stopper became an RBI machine, ended the season with a 15-game hitting streak and helped Loyalsock score six or more runs 18 times in 23 games.

“I don’t think we’re ever out of a game and that’s the confidence they have,” O’Malley said. “Regardless of the score, we have capabilities of scoring runs in bunches.”

Loyalsock did that throughout its first 12 games, but the defense struggled and errors were playing major roles in its defeats. As prolific a hitter as Stopper was, she was a complete player and her SpaceX throw home against South provided the season’s turning point as all facets of the Loyalsock arsenal started clicking together.

“If we can get rid of those errors it’s going to make us even better because if we can win with seven errors that shows something,” Stopper said. “We never gave up even though we had that many errors.”

Stopper, an outstanding three-sport athlete, never let Loyalsock give up and was the Sun-Gazette Player of the Year as a senior, helping Loyalsock finish 18-4. The sequel to her monster 2018 season was even better than the original, too. Stopper hit .545 with 43 more RBIs and 24 extra-base hits. Stopper smashed 14 doubles and 24 of her 42 hits went for extra bases as she produced a 1.675 OPS, a 1.026 slugging percentage and stole 10 bases.

Over her final two seasons, Stopper hit safely in 35 of her last 37 games and scored 36 times in 2019. She also produced 14 multi-hit games that season and compiled a .649 on-base percentage, frequently delivering in clutch situations. No area player delivered more RBIs than Stopper last decade and as more decades come and go it could be hard for area players to match the totals she accumulated.

She was a true five-tool player and a super defender, but it was at the plate where Stopper produced a masterpiece.

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