By Richard L. Gaw
In the top of the sixth inning of last Friday's District 1 Class AAAA quarterfinal playoff game at Avon Grove, a large black bird, presumably a crow, flew over the field, as if to forecast that something ominous was about to happen to the home team. Below, Avon Grove pitcher Maggie Balint was pitching tremendously, but the Red Devils were an inning away from going down in a 1-0 defeat against visiting Neshaminy.
In the bottom of the 7th, the crow came back, and so did Avon Grove, to pull off one of the greatest victories in the program's history, and one that came in the most unorthodox of ways.
Throughout the game, Balint mowed down the first three batters of the game, on her way to a 12-strikeout performance, while surrendering 7 hits. The only blemish in her record came in the fourth inning, when Neshaminy scored their only run on a double to left center field by Hunter Hart that drove in Taylor Sheedy, who had pinch run for Samantha Offenback, who had walked. Meanwhile, on the offensive side, the Red Devils were stymied through the first six innings by Neshaminy's Jenny Rakita, who gave up a single and a double to Logan Needham and little else until the seventh.
In the arena of comebacks however, this would not be Avon Grove's first trip to the rodeo. On May 21, the Red Devils were locked in a scoreless duel with Central Bucks South in the opening round of the 1 Class AAAA softball playoffs, when they pushed across the winning run on a pitcher's overthrow in the bottom of the 8thinning.
Balint, who had been hit with a pitch in the second, was nicked again by Rakita to lead off the 7th. Alyssa Herion, who had popped out in her two previous at-bats, then stroked a double off the left field fence, sending Balint to third with the tying run.
“In the beginning of the game, I thought I needed to hit a home run, that I have to do that to win,” Herion said after the game. “This time, I settled down and hit the ball really hard.”
After Madison Porter popped out to Rakita, Neshaminy coach Dave Chichilitti instructed Rakita to intentionally walk Courtney Coppock, in order to set up a force at each base. Rakita's second pitch went over the head of catcher Offenback, sending a sliding Balint home with the tying run. After Coppock walked, Rakita attempted to intentionally walk Morgan Vansciver, but her toss went in the dirt and past Offenback. Herion, who had advanced to third on the overthrow, bolted toward home and slid under Offenback's tag attempt, for the winning run. Emerging from a cloud of dust, Herion was mobbed by her teammates.
“There's not another group of girls I want to be here with than [my teammates],” Herion added. “This team has a will to win I've never seen before. We're always competitive even though sometimes it's at the last second.”
In describing her team, first-year coach Avon Grove coach Julie Hatfield used words like “persistent” and “resilient.”
“I tell them all the time, 'You guys have a will to win that I can't explain,'” Hatfield said. “You want all of your players to have that. We talk about going on instinct and going on guts a lot, and that's exactly what happened here, and it's won us a couple of games just by them trusting themselves.”
With the 2-1 victory, Avon Grove, now 17-4 on the season, locked up its entry as the No. 2 seed in the district semifinals and its first berth in the PIAA playoffs in school history. They faced off against Souderton on May 27.