CALIFORNIA – Confusion filled Piper McLaughlin’s senses as she slid safely into third base and looked up to see her Chartiers-Houston teammates flying from the dugout toward home plate.
All McLaughlin could deduce was, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of a wild WPIAL Class A championship game against Carmichaels Thursday at California University, something significant just happened.
What the junior left fielder didn’t know was how significant a role she had just played in the celebration.
“When I was running to third, I didn’t know if we had scored or if someone was tagged out at home,” McLaughlin said. “I saw the team tackling each other. I was so confused. I wasn’t sure if it was over.”
With one swing of McLaughlin’s bat, a long, draining championship game filled with missed scoring opportunities and outstanding pitching performances from Cameron Grimes and Kayla Briggs was over.
McLaughlin’s two-run, two-out triple provided Chartiers-Houston an improbable 3-2 victory over Carmichaels in front of 1,907 at Lilley Field. The win gives Chartiers-Houston a ninth softball championship, which ties the Bucs with Sto-Rox for second-most in WPIAL history. Baldwin has won 10 WPIAL titles.
Few, if any, of the previous eight championship games were won in such dramatic fashion, and it’s difficult to imagine one more nerve-racking.
Top-seeded Chartiers-Houston (23-1), which plays Brockway, a 4-0 loser to Elk County Catholic in the District 9 title game Thursday, in the first round of the PIAA playoffs Monday, was down to its final three outs.
“They battled and they believed in each other,” said head coach Tricia Alderson, who has coached the Bucs to five WPIAL titles since 2005. “I’m sure they could feel the pressure. It would be hard not to.”
The pressure reached extreme levels in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Carmichaels (22-2) finally lit the scoreboard in the top of the seventh after a series of near-misses against Briggs, who struck out 12.
The Mikes stranded four runners at third base and had another tagged out between third and home, but the pitching of Grimes helped keep the game scoreless and give the Carmichaels offense opportunity after opportunity to score.
In the seventh, Regina Menhart doubled off Briggs and pinch-runner Anna Cree scored on Grimes’ sacrifice fly to shallow center field with the bases loaded. All those memories of stranded baserunners vanished as Carmichaels came within three outs of its first WPIAL softball title since 1998 and Grimes was working on a two-hitter.
“We had some chances,” Carmichaels coach Dave Briggs said. “We were one hit from really getting up there, but we just couldn’t get that hit. It’s tough. We played a hell of a game. I thought we played well enough to win.”
Grimes kept Chartiers-Houston off balance with her mix of offspeed pitches, and shortstop Morgan Berardi made a pair of fantastic plays – one on a phantom throw to first base where she tagged out a runner at second and another a game-saving diving catch for the third out of the eighth inning.
“She jammed some batters. It’s not easy when you’re expecting one pitch and she throws another,” Alderson said of Grimes. “They’re a very good team and a very good defensive team. That shortstop made some great plays.”
In contrast, Chartiers-Houston struggled defensively. The Bucs made four errors, including one in the top of the ninth that led to the Mikes’ second run after a Lindsey Osborne double scored Berardi.
Things were particularly trying for McLaughlin, who misplayed several balls hit to left field and had an error on another.
“I was so nervous. I kept trying to tell myself to stay calm,” McLaughlin said. “I tried to stay focused on the next play. It wasn’t easy.”
Ashley Hall’s at-bat to lead off the bottom of the seventh helped the Bucs offensively and defensively. Hall, who bats fifth in the Bucs’ order, appeared to have doubled down the left-field line but had to return to the plate when it was called foul.
“It was fair, but everything happens for a reason,” Hall said. “Everybody did their part and fate helped us find our own answers in this one.”
After returning to the plate, Hall fouled off a succession of pitches and finally reached first on an infield error after a 14-pitch at-bat. Pinch-runner Casey Craig eventually scored on pinch-hitter Samatha Elliott’s single.
The game-tying single set the stage of McLaughlin’s game-winner two innings later.
“(Hall) definitely got us going. We always say when someone starts hitting, it’s contagious,” McLaughlin said. “We have great players on this team and we always pick each other up. We got through this together, and it feels great.”