Avon Grove loses heartbreaker in state championship final, 1-0
● By Richard Gaw
Beneath the simplicity of a blue sky laced with billowy clouds, Avon Grove pitcher Maggie Balint paused for a moment on Friday afternoon near the visiting dugout at the Nittany Lion Softball Field on the campus of Penn State University, just moments before she was about to take the mound for the most important game of her young life.
She seemed to be allowing herself one final moment of peace before she would make her final walk to the circle as an Avon Grove Red Devil, and whether or not her stellar high school career – three Gatorade Softball Player of the Year awards to her credit -- would end in platitudes or as a quiet last chapter would rely, largely, on the power of her right arm. The rain on Thursday had postponed this, the 2016 PIAA State Softball championship game, so she had waited far too long to get in that circle and gear it all up, one final time.
The road to get to this summit began with a series of explanation points. On the backs of her pitching – with some clutch hitting along the way – Balint had led her club to PIAA Softball Tournament wins over Archbishop Ryan, West Chester East and Hazleton to get to the championship game, but on June 17, the road to the first Avon Grove state softball championship in school history ended in heartbreak, with a sacrifice fly.
Following a seven-inning no-hitter that included nine strikeouts, Balint surrendered a bases-loaded sacrifice fly that scored the game’s only run to give Hempfield Area High School the PIAA AAAA Pennsylvania State Championship, before 400 fans at Nittany Lion Softball Park.
Balint and Hempfield Area pitcher Morgan Ryan – a Notre Dame recruit -- went toe-to-toe for the first three innings, with only a two-out single by ninth-hole hitter Olivia McCarvey to right field in the third inning the only blemish in Ryan’s pitching.
Meanwhile, Balint struck out the side in the first, fanned two more in the third, and was helped early on by some nifty fielding. In the second, Kaylee Bloom smacked a two-out shot to dead center that was gloved by center fielder Laura Thompson, and in the third, a two-out bunt attempt by Taylor Hoffman was scooped up by Red Devil third baseman Rachel Butler, who threw a strike to first baseman Allyson Wallauer for the out.
Balint’s no-hit pursuit remained intact in the fourth, when Alexa Pastor’s lead-of dribble to third base was picked up by Butler and whipped to Wallauer, who dropped the ball. Pastor then stole second, but Balint then induced Jenna Osikowicz to pop out, Ryan to fly to left, and Stoner to ground out to end the threat in the fourth.
Inning after inning, neither Ryan nor Balint were willing to surrender even a slight blemish of a scoring threat to their opponent. With goose eggs dotting the scoreboard in the fifth, the story line of the championship game -- a game when crucial hits lead to trophies -- the hitting attack on both sides was written in squibs and bunt attempts. Ryan retired Avon Grove on grounders in the top of the fifth, and with one away in the Hempfield Area fifth, Balint walked Bloom on four pitches, struck out Jordan Sterling and battled with Ali Belgiovane for a ten-pitch at-bat, before Belviogane finally popped out to Balint.
By the sixth, two things were becoming apparent: that the two best pitchers in the state were sharing the circle; and that the team who would eventually walk away with the state championship would do so in the sudden blink of an eye.
In the bottom of the sixth, Balint forced Hoffman to pop out and then walked Pastor, who then got into scoring position by stealing second base after Osikowicz struck out. With two away and Pastor leading off of second, Balint struck out Ryan on a high fastball.
At 3:18 p.m., nearly two hours after the first pitch, the game pushed its way into extra innings after a scoreless seventh. After Ryan retired Butler, Olivia Kunitsky and Camryn Laterza in order in the top of the eighth, Balint walked pinch-hitter Jordan Bernard to lead off the bottom of the eighth. Sterling was re-inserted into the game as a designated runner for Bernard. A sacrifice attempt by Belgiovane was scooped up by Balint and tossed to second baseman McCarvey covering, but the throw pulled her off the bag, erasing Balint’s no-hit attempt and setting up a two-on, no-out scenario.
A Hoffman infield grounder was then bobbled by Butler, setting up a bases-loaded situation for Pastor who, on the first pitch, drove in the winning run with a sacrifice fly to left. After making the catch, left fielder Megan Nolan fired the ball into Kunitsky at the plate, but Sterling’s hook slide just eluded Kunitsky’s tag.
“In the bottom of the eighth inning, I knew that fatigue was going to start setting in,” said Avon Grove head coach Mike DeLuzio. “They made plays at the right time, and we didn’t make them. That’s the bottom line. We practiced that throw in the outfield with Megan, and she almost got that girl at the plate, but that girl (Pastor) hit the ball a long way, so kudos to them.”
After the game, DiLuzio was reminded of a conversation he’d had with his team before the start of the season, one where he encouraged his team to fashion its identity around one player – in this case, Balint – and work selflessly to achieve it.
“We try to gear each team we have to the personality we have on it, and naturally, with the team we had with Maggie we worked on fielding and playing small ball,” he said. “Next year, we’ll have a different pitcher in the circle (expected to be Butler) and we may have to come out and work on more hitting or whatever the case may be, but we’ll see where the personality of that team takes us.
“You would have liked to win it,” DiLuzio added, “but this is the end result of our kids buying into the program, believing in what it can do, and executing it, all the way to the state championship game.”
Moments after the game, Avon Grove received its second-place medals, in ceremonies held up the third-base line. To left fielder Nolan, however, the medallion that hung from her neck in the dugout after the game was a bittersweet consolation prize.
“This one is definitely hard to lose, and it would have been nice to win,” the junior said. “Obviously, we’re losing Maggie, so we have to learn to become a better defense, because that’s what lost the game for us today, and we need to learn how to live without Maggie,” the junior said. “That’s how we bounce back next year.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.