STATE COLLEGE — Bases loaded. Two outs. Hazleton Area was down by two runs Thursday and, perhaps, in its last at-bat of the season.
Tension was building. So was another powerful rainstorm about to hit Beard Field on the campus of Penn State.
Four pitches after the second rain delay of over three hours, Central Dauphin secured its first state softball title in school history with a 3-1 victory over Hazleton Area in the PIAA Class 6A championship game.
The game was scheduled to start at 11 a.m. but didn’t begin until just after 2 p.m. because heavy rain that was forecast the night before hit with force on Thursday. The second delay lasted three hours, 17 minutes and the game resumed at 7:15 p.m., making total stoppage of over six hours.
It couldn’t have come at a worst time for District 2 champion Hazleton Area (23-2). Tiana Treon lined a single up the middle to start the bottom of the seventh and Julia Mooney singled to right, the only times the Cougars hit the ball out of the infield against North Carolina State recruit Samantha Gress.
Gianna Gombeda followed with a bunt single to load the bases. Gress got her 10th strikeout for the first out and second baseman Bella Culp made an incredible over-the-shoulder catch for the second out, barely avoiding two teammates.
As Julia Mrochko walked to the plate, the teams were told to leave the field due to lightning in the area. That gave the sophomore lead-off hitter a three-hour break until she batted.
“My teammates tried to keep me up in that situation, from keeping it continuously running in my head,” Mrochko said. “But it’s hard, obviously, sitting there three hours for it not to come into your mind.”
Mrochko fouled a pitch off and then hit the fourth pitch she saw back to Gress, who flipped the ball to first for the final out.
“I’ve never been in a game like this,” Hazleton Area coach Bob Bertoni said. “Our kids fought to the end regardless of the conditions. We fought to the last out. Hats off to Central Dauphin. They’re a great team, and they’re the best team in the state.”
Until the seventh inning, Hazleton Area struggled against Gress, who was instrumental in D3 champion Central Dauphin’s final 25-2 record.
Gress zipped her fastball in with such velocity that Cougars batters were swinging late, evident by numerous sliced foul balls. Then, when the Cougars thought they had the fastball timed up, Gress would sneak in a painfully slow change-up. She caught two batters looking in the fourth on called third strikes.
“You just have to go inning by inning, pitch by pitch and not think too ahead of yourself,” Gress said.
Hazleton Area, though, finally broke through for a run in the sixth inning. Caitlyn Katchur led off and reached on an error. Mrochko then hit an infield single to shortstop Samantha Burns, who was unable to make a backhand stop.
After a strikeout, Marissa Trivelpiece hit a comebacker to Gress, who threw to third for a force out. However, the Cougars caught the Rams napping after the play and Mrochko darted to third and Trivelpiece raced to second. Mrochko scored on a wild pitch before a popout ended the inning.
While Hazleton Area struggled through six innings against Gress, Central Dauphin was able to hit Hazleton Area pitcher Aleah Kost, who relies more on control and location than sheer power.
Central Dauphin’s Culp led off the first with a walk and scored on Gress’ double down the left-field line.
The Rams added two more runs in the third. Gress started the inning by being hit by a pitch. She scored when Tyler White doubled to deep center. Two outs later, White scored on Jillian Kendra’s double to the warning track in left for a 3-0 lead.
After that, Kost allowed just two more hits, retiring the side in order in the fourth and sixth innings. She worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the seventh.
“She settled down a little bit and she was making her pitches,” said Central Dauphin coach Ken Williams, who ended his 29-year coaching career with a state title. “She was overpowering; that’s correct. She had a little bit of a curveball and would throw a screwball inside. Early, she was missing a little bit and we took advantage of that.”
NOTE: Hazleton Area postponed its graduation from Thursday to Friday because of the forecast. The PIAA thought it could get three games in on Thursday. Instead, the third game was moved to Friday and the second game, which was scheduled to start at 4:30 p.m. after Hazleton Area and Central Dauphin finished up, didn’t begin until after 8 p.m.
PIAA Class 6A Championship
Central Dauphin 3, Hazleton Area 1
Central Dauphin`102`000`0 – 3
Hazleton Area`000`001`0 – 1
E – CD 1. LOB – CD 9, HA 6. 2B – Gress, White, Figueroa, Kendra. SF – White.
HBP – Sellers, Gress (by Kost).
Reach John Erzar at 570-991-6394 or on Twitter @TLJohnErzar