Hazleton Area had its softball season end last year in the state semifinals, thanks to the arm of a Division I recruit.
Now, if the Cougars are going to capture the ultimate prize — the inaugural PIAA Class 6A championship — they’ll need to solve another.
District 2 champion Hazleton Area (20-3) has a difficult task starting at 4 p.m. Thursday at Nittany Lion Softball Park at Penn State when it plays District 7 champion Hempfield (26-0) and pitcher Morgan Ryan.
Ryan has been simply outstanding this year with 192 strikeouts in 132 innings. She had a 0.94 ERA entering the state tournament. Notre Dame offered her a scholarship as a sophomore and she verbally committed the summer before her junior year. She was named the Gatorade Softball Player of the Year in Pennsylvania.
Rewind to last season when the PIAA had just four softball classifications. Hazleton Area worked its way to the Class 4A semifinals where the Cougars ran into University of Oregon recruit Maggie Balint and Avon Grove. The results weren’t pretty — 14 strikeouts, just five hits and a 4-2 loss.
“We’re definitely going to be prepared for her as far as velocity this year,” Hazleton Area coach Heather Natt said, “although we did put up two runs against Maggie last year. Hopefully, we’ll put up a little bit more and be more proactive with that. And then just play defense behind Erika (Book) and keep them from scoring.”
Hazleton Area has five starters back from that semifinal loss — catcher Hope Kinney, first baseman Megan Trivelpiece, center fielder Becca Rossi, second baseman Taylor Kaschak and right fielder Taylor Kost.
For the record, Balint was a three-time Gatorade Player of the Year and struck out 152 in 126 innings in her freshman season at Oregon. She didn’t win the state title, though, as Hempfield defeated Avon Grove 1-0.
Hempfield’s state title in 2016 is part of an incredible run. The Spartans have won 40 consecutive games, although there have been some shaky moments in the 6A state tournament. They defeated D3 third seed Central York 1-0 in the first round on a homer by Ryan in the fifth inning.
Up next was D10 champion Erie McDowell. Hempfield won 5-0, but it took eight innings. That victory was followed by an 11-4 win over D3 champion Chambersburg, a game where Ryan was not her normal self. She struck out just four and surrendered nine hits.
Hazleton Area was in survival mode as well at times. The Cougars didn’t put away D1 fourth seed Coatesville until late, winning 7-1. They used a two-out, two-run double by freshman Marissa Trivelpiece to defeat D1 fifth seed Council Rock North 6-5. Then in the semifinals, they trailed D1 third seed Spring-Ford 4-0 going into the bottom of the second and won 8-5.