Sometimes, it’s hard to tell who the best teams are in a given classification going into the season, and it takes some time for things to sort themselves out.
Other times, like in the case of the WPIAL Class 6A championship game at 4:45 p.m. Wednesday at PennWest California’s Lilley Field, it’s clear right from the start that two teams stand out above the rest.
From the beginning of the season, fans have clamored for a championship matchup between No. 1 Seneca Valley (17-1) and No. 2 Hempfield (17-3), and both teams took care of business in last week’s semifinal round to make the highly anticipated rubber match a reality after splitting a pair of matchups during the regular season. The Raiders have won 11 games in a row since a 3-2 loss April 12 at Hempfield, including a 3-0 win in the rematch in the final game of the regular season to clinch the section title and No. 1 seed.
That high-stakes rematch May 11 at Seneca carried plenty of significance, but nothing compared to what is at stake on Wednesday. A win would give the Raiders back-to-back WPIAL titles in the largest classification — something that hasn’t been done since the Spartans won five in a row from 2015-19. For Hempfield, a win would bring the Spartans an eighth WPIAL championship banner, which would tie Chartiers-Houston for third most in WPIAL history.
“Once you win that WPIAL championship and section title, you do have a target on your back,” Seneca coach Marlesse Hames said. “Every team comes ready to play you, and they’re going to play their best. So all season, we’ve had to play our best to be able to compete with that.”
It’s no secret why the Raiders have now won 29 of their past 31 games dating back to the middle of last season. It all starts with sophomore sensation Lexie Hames, the daughter of Seneca’s coach and a true softball superstar of the highest order. Hames struck out a whopping 250 batters in only 107 innings during the regular season, and she added 10 more Ks to her ledger in a 7-2 win against Pine-Richland in the WPIAL semifinals while raising her ERA to a minuscule 0.43 in the process.
Hames burst onto the scene as a freshman, bashing 14 home runs to tie for the WPIAL lead while pitching Seneca to a WPIAL title and a trip to the state championship game. This year, teams have been downright terrified to pitch to her, and she currently has drawn 31 walks in 61 plate appearances so far.
When teams do choose to pitch to her, Hames tends to make them regret it. Despite having only 28 at-bats, she still leads the team with five home runs — none bigger than her towering three-run bomb to break open a scoreless tie in the sixth inning of that 3-0 win against Hempfield in the regular-season finale.
“I think it’s just going to depend on the situation,” Spartans coach Tina Madison said about potentially pitching to Hames in the championship game. “I really, really try to not have one kid beat a team. I think that’s the thing about our team. We’re very strong top to bottom. … But obviously in the back of my mind, I’m not going to forget her three-run shot.”
Hempfield might not have one player to match the star power of Hames, but the Spartans do have several standout players scattered throughout their lineup, along with a certified ace pitcher of their own in sophomore Riley Miller.
Miller broke her leg in last year’s WPIAL quarterfinals and missed Hempfield’s WPIAL semifinal showdown against Seneca Valley, which the Raiders won, 7-2, en route to winning the WPIAL title. Her return has been a blessing for the Spartans, and she showed off her resolve in an 8-5 win against Norwin in the WPIAL semifinals on Wednesday by shutting the Knights down over the last five innings, allowing Hempfield to rally back from an early 5-1 deficit.
“I honestly think it’s going to be a great game, and it’s going to come down to who makes a mistake,” Madison said. “That’s what happens when you have two pitchers the quality of Lexie and Riley.”
Senior Peyton Heisler showed off her power with a huge three-run homer to spark the Spartans’ comeback against Norwin, and the Penn recruit has been a reliable run producer all season long in the middle of Hempfield’s lineup. Georgetown recruit Maggie Howard and her younger sister, freshman infielder Lauren Howard, are both playing key roles as well for the Spartans in their quest to return to the top of the Class 6A hierarchy.
Against a pitcher like Hames, baserunners will surely be at a premium for Hempfield on Wednesday, so the Spartans will have to make the most of every opportunity they can muster. Executing in small-ball situations and playing a mistake-free game in the field will both be crucial to Hempfield’s chances in this one, while Seneca likely needs only a little bit of run support to give Hames all the cushion she needs.
“I think qualifying for the WPIAL championship says a lot,” said Madison, a 2001 Hempfield grad and one of the most accomplished players in program history. “There have been a lot of quotes recently in the press that are like, ‘The first time Hempfield returns [to the finals] since 2019.’ And it’s like, it wasn’t 1980. We’re talking about four years.
“I think if you ask 100 people, they would say [we’re the underdog]. But in my mind, I like our chances.”
No. 1 Armstrong (19-1) vs. No. 3 Trinity (18-2) — 2:30 p.m. Thursday
Defending champion Armstrong has won 19 games in a row following a season-opening defeat against Class 6A finalist Hempfield, proving to be the same offensive juggernaut in Keith Shaffer’s first year as head coach as the previous two seasons under Doug Flanders. The River Hawks are making their third consecutive appearance in the Class 5A championship game, holding an overall record of 60-12 over the past three years.
If anybody can match up with the firepower in Armstrong’s loaded lineup, though, it’s Trinity. The Hillers took out previously unbeaten Shaler, 5-4, in the WPIAL semifinals, after putting up 13 runs in a mercy-rule victory against a strong Latrobe team in the quarterfinal round. Ryleigh Hoy, Amber Morgan and Hanna Suhoski all pack plenty of pop at the plate, and Taylor Dunn is one of the top pitchers in Class 5A.
Make no mistake about it, though — the red-hot River Hawks are still the team to beat until proven otherwise. With sluggers like Jenna Clontz and Jessie Pugh and five-tool talents like Emma Paul and Emma Smerick — plus a rock-solid duo in senior pitcher Cameryn Sprankle and senior catcher Bella Atherton — it’s going to take a monumental effort to take down Armstrong. No matter who wins, you can count on plenty of fireworks in this one.
No. 2 Montour (15-3) vs. No. 4 Belle Vernon (17-4) — noon Wednesday
Both teams facing off in the Class 4A finals got a good look at one another during last Wednesday’s WPIAL semifinals at West Mifflin High School, where Belle Vernon blasted previously unbeaten Elizabeth Forward in the first game of the doubleheader, 10-1, before Montour mercy-ruled section-rival Chartiers Valley, 10-0.
The Spartans feature a talented trio of seniors leading the way in power-hitting outfielders Mia Arndt and Avrie Polo and ace pitcher Kaitlyn Molitoris, and juniors Jana Hess and Gia LaBrie are having breakout years while also raising their level of play in the postseason. After batting .574 with eight home runs and 26 RBIs during the regular season, Arndt smacked a two-run homer to bring an end to the semifinal win vs. the Colts, while Molitoris fired a one-hit shutout in the five-inning win.
The Leopards might appear to be a slight underdog on paper, but they are playing like a team of destiny while honoring the memory of coach Tom Rodriguez’s late wife, Linda, who died on March 28, just after the season began. Belle Vernon has received big-time performances at the plate from Lexi Daniels, Maren Metikosh, Gracie Sokol and Mia Zubovic, and Olivia Kolowitz and Talia Ross provide a great 1-2 punch in the circle. Expect this to be a tightly contested matchup with momentum swings on both sides.
No. 1 Avonworth (20-1) vs. No. 2 Southmoreland (16-2) — noon Thursday
Fresh off winning WPIAL and PIAA titles in 2022, Avonworth has picked up right where it left off while looking perhaps even more polished and powerful than last year. The Antelopes’ only loss came in a 9-2 defeat on April 19 against defending WPIAL and PIAA Class 2A champion Neshannock, which happens to be in the midst of a 45-game winning streak.
Avonworth is led by ace pitcher Alivia Lantzy, who led the team with a .510 batting average while tying for the WPIAL lead with 16 wins during the regular season. Her battery mate, junior catcher Rylee Gray, might just be the best backstop in the entire WPIAL. Gray tied for third in the WPIAL with nine home runs in the regular season while finishing fourth with 36 RBIs. Leah Kuban, Sydney Savatt and Layne Shinsky are also enjoying standout seasons for the Lopes.
The odds might seem to be stacked against Southmoreland, but an upset win for the Scotties wouldn’t be out of the question. Junior shortstop Amarah McCutcheon hit .542 with 10 home runs during the regular season, and junior pitcher Maddie Brown is fresh off an impressive shutout against a solid Waynesburg team in the WPIAL semifinals. Anything can happen, but Avonworth might just have a bit too much depth, talent and big-game experience for Southmoreland to overcome.
No. 1 Neshannock (19-0) vs. No. 2 Laurel (16-2) — 4:45 p.m. Thursday
Historical implications headline the final championship game of the week between Lawrence County arch rivals Neshannock and Laurel, which might just be the most anticipated Class 2A championship game in WPIAL history. The unbeaten Lancers are defending WPIAL and PIAA champions, and they could become only the second team to win back-to-back WPIAL titles without losing a game after Beaver did so in 2021-22.
On top of that, Neshannock has won 45 games in a row dating back to the start of the 2022 season, and a win on Thursday would tie the Lancers with Hempfield for what is believed to be the longest winning streak in WPIAL history. They certainly have all the tools necessary to get it done — with sophomore star Addy Frye leading the way in the circle and one of the most potent lineups in the area from top to bottom, combining to create an aura of invincibility that only a handful of teams in any sport in WPIAL history can match.
For the Spartans, Thursday’s championship clash represents a seventh chance to beat Neshannock over the past two years. Laurel holds an 0-6 record against the Lancers while owning a mark of 35-1 against all other foes since the start of last season. The Spartans have kept things close several times, with three of the six games between the teams during that span decided by three runs or less. They will need to score early and often if they hope to pull off what could go down as one of the biggest upsets in WPIAL history.
No. 1 Union (16-3) vs. No. 3 Carmichaels (18-0) — 2:30 p.m. Wednesday
Last year, Union was a heavy underdog going into the WPIAL title game against five-time defending champion West Greene when the Scotties stunned the Pioneers to capture their first title in program history. This time around, Union is the top seed with the target on its back going into Wednesday’s showdown against unbeaten Carmichaels, which is seeking its first WPIAL title since winning back-to-back crowns in 1997-98.
Mia Preuhs pitched a complete game to earn the win in last year’s WPIAL title game as a freshman, and she is putting together a stellar sophomore season for the Scotties after batting .500 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs during the regular season. Preuhs also played on Union’s WPIAL and PIAA championship-winning basketball team in the winter.
The Mighty Mikes haven’t exactly come out of nowhere, but there probably weren’t many picking them to go undefeated all the way to the WPIAL finals before the season started. Freshman shorstop Carys McConnell has provided a huge boost along with sophomores Ashton Batis and Ali Jacobs, giving Carmichaels one of the top young cores in the district.