If something goes wrong during today’s PIAA Class 3A state softball championship game, the Holy Redeemer Royals know where to turn.
And, no, it’s not to coach Jerry Paulukonis.
It’s the players who’ve been there before — Morgan Bienkowski, Allyson Lauivara, Sam Rajza and Tiana Wren — as the District 2 champion Royals (20-2) play District 6 champion Philipsburg-Osceola (24-1) at 1:30 p.m. at Nittany Lion Softball Park at Penn State.
“They know their leadership, they know their role,” Paulukonis said. “They kind of get that handle on things. They leave the coaching to us, but if somebody has some nerves they tend to calm them down a little bit. It’s difficult when a guy is trying to calm down one of these teenagers. You let them handle that and let their experience talk for themselves.”
Bienkowski and Rajza were starters on the team which won the Class 2A state title in 2015. They were joined by Lauivara and Wren on the 2016 state championship squad.
“Me and Sam have been here twice before,” Bienkowski said. “We have to keep reminding them they have to stay calm, cool and collected. That we know what we’re doing. That we have to trust what we’ve learned in practice and put it into effect during games. It’s been working for us a lot and we’ve been peaking at the right moment.”
Redeemer’s road to State College was rougher than in 2015 and 2016. Five starters needed to be replaced, leaving the team with uncertainty offensively and defensively.
Plus, those four veterans had to shuffle around the field. Bienkowski became the full-time pitcher after splitting time between the circle and shortstop. Rajza went from outfield to short. Lauivara went to center field after manning a corner outfield spot. Wren departed center and became the catcher.
There were more challenges. Division 3 in the Wyoming Valley Conference improved dramatically and the Royals were pushed more this season than in recent years before winning their sixth consecutive divisional championship.
“I’m just going to tell them to play like we’re back on our home field,” Wren said. “Don’t take all the people in the stands and all of the reporters in mind. Just play your game and we should be OK.”
And that doesn’t include to mention the people across the state watching the game on TV or online via the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN).
Those state titles allowed Redeemer to build a reputation around the state after some lean years when the program started in 2008. Philipsburg-Osceola forged its stature long ago.
The Mounties have been a perennial District 6 power since coach Jim Gonder assumed control in 1983. They’ve won 13 D6 championships, including three in a row. They’ve won the last four Mountain League titles, giving them 19 in all. Since the program’s inception in 1975, Philipsburg-Osceola is 728-193, a winning percentage of .790. The Mounties’ only loss this season was 6-5 in nine innings to Bald Eagle Area.
There are also a couple state championships in the trophy case for winning the Class 2A crown in 2007 and 2011. Philipsburg-Osceola finished the 2A state runner-up in 2000 and 2010, but therein lies the caveat. Those losses were to District 2 teams — Valley View in 2000 and Nanticoke Area in 2010.
The Mounties are led by pitcher Kam Harris, who was the Progress News Player of the Year in 2017. Although not the strikeout maestro that Bienkowski is, Harris isn’t very far behind in that category. She can wield a bat like Bienkowski and had six RBI in a 15-4 semifinal win over Southmoreland on Monday.
Three other first-team all-stars from a year ago are also in the lineup — right fielder Madison Lucas, catcher Kylie Thal and right fielder Madison Lucas.
Reach John Erzar at 570-991-6394 or on Twitter @TLJohnErzar