Sokoloski: Redeemer snags another spot in PIAA softball finals

Olivia Murray chases down a fly ball to right-center for an out for the Royals. Tony Callaio | For Times Leader -

The lone glove left sitting on Holy Redeemer’s bench after the team had departed the field had Jerry Paulukonis bristling.

“Somebody’s running laps,” the Royals coach snarled. “They leave a glove, they run laps.”

The Royals ran enough of them in the state softball semifinals. Or at least a lot more than they’re accustomed to running with unbeaten star pitcher Morgan Bienkowski in the circle.

Second baseman McKenna Dolan had to circle under a pop-up to end a threat in the third inning Monday and right fielder Olivia Murray made a terrific, over-the-shoulder, running catch near the wall to start the fourth.

That was when the game against North Schuylkill was scoreless.

After Redeemer took a two-run lead, center fielder Allyson Laiuvara sprinted forward and sideways to protect the Royals’ 2-0 victory with key catches in the sixth and seventh innings.

So maybe it was fitting that the lasting symbol of a victory that will send the Royals to their third state championship game in four years was that lone glove in the dugout.

“When we’re in conference games, our defense doesn’t get a lot of balls hit to us,” Laiuvara said.

It doesn’t happen much in the playoffs, either, with the Binghamton-bound Bienkowski racking up strikeout totals of 16, 13 and 14 (of the game’s 15 outs) in three previous games, beginning with Redeemer’s District 2 championship victory.

The Royals didn’t see a lot of action on defense — especially in the outfield — and didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for fielding a flurry of shots.

That’s what made Monday’s game of web gems magical for Redeemer.

“We heard they were a good-hitting team,” Dolan was saying, after her single in the fourth sent Tiana Wren to third base to score the game’s first run on a passed ball and Bienkowski drove home the other with a fifth-inning double. “We just had to make good plays in the field.”

That doesn’t happen often.

Not with Bienkowski striking out the world. The hard-throwing right-hander brought 271 strikeouts in 128 innings and a 0.27 ERA into the semifinal showdown at Central Columbia High School and was coming off a jaw-dropping game against Springfield-Montco in the quarterfinals, where the only out Bienkowski didn’t record by fanning someone was a weak grounder to Dolan at second.

But Bienkowski stayed strong, even without getting some calls on the inside corner with that wicked screwball she lives on and even with some dangerous sounds coming off the bats of the Spartans she was facing.

“Obviously we’re in the finals,” Bienkowski said. “The teams we’re going to be facing have great hitters.”

Not that Bienkowski pitched a bad game. She still finished with 11 strikeouts and allowed a runner to reach second base just once. For as many times as North Schuylkill put the ball in play, Bienkowski only surrendered one hit.

But this time, she needed some help.

Dolan was the first to provide some, as the first-year starter at second snagged an inning-ending pop that could have been made dangerous by a setting sun to leave runners at first and second.

“We’ve been working real hard on our defense,” Dolan said. “All my coaches are making sure I go back on the ball.”

Then came the fabulous catch by Murray, a freshman who raced to her right and back toward the wall to glove a shot off the bat of Danni Holmes to begin the fourth.

“A fantastic catch,” Paulukonis called it. “We thought that ball was down. That girl, she walked into practice the first day, a couple of others were saying, ‘I don’t know about her.’ I said, ‘She’s going to be a player for us.’ She proved me right.”

Then Laiuvara kept showing up in the right place at the right time.

She came dashing in from medium center field to snag Kira Marlow’s looping shot a few yards behind second base to begin the sixth inning, was on the move to her left on the next play to spear Schuyler Ossman’s hard shot and tracked down Hailey Guerrero’s high fly with a runner on in the seventh for the next-to-last out of the game.

“I’m really comfortable in the field,” Laiuvara said.

And because of it, the Royals can feel comfortable again, while sitting on the brink of another state title.

Olivia Murray chases down a fly ball to right-center for an out for the Royals. Tony Callaio | For Times Leader Murray chases down a fly ball to right-center for an out for the Royals. Tony Callaio | For Times Leader

Reach Paul Sokoloski at 570-991-6392 or on Twitter @TLPaulSokoloski

Reach Paul Sokoloski at 570-991-6392 or on Twitter @TLPaulSokoloski