With two talented teams as evenly matched as Montour and Belle Vernon, it’s no surprise seven innings weren’t enough on Wednesday to decide the WPIAL Class 4A champion.

Playing with heavy hearts while honoring the memory of coach Tom Rodriguez’s late wife, Linda, the No. 4 seed Leopards (18-4) broke open a tie score with three runs in the top of the eighth inning, then held off a spirited rally by the No. 2 Spartans (15-4) for an action-packed, 8-7 win at Lilley Field in California, Pa. The win gives Rodriguez his fifth WPIAL title in 21 years at the helm at Belle Vernon — and the one he will cherish the most.

“This one was exciting,” Rodriguez said. “Getting this far was really surprising.”

Lauren VanDivner went 4 for 5 with a double and three RBIs, while Ava Zubovic went 3 for 5 and also drove in three runs for the Leopards. Talia Ross didn’t start the game, but she came on in relief for Olivia Kolowitz in the second inning and threw 156 pitches over 6⅔ innings, allowing three runs on five hits while striking out 10.

“We were prepared for both [pitchers],” Montour coach Ken Kutchman said. “That’s a good team. Both are good pitchers. … We’ll regroup and get back to work and be ready for whatever day we play next week.”

VanDivner got the scoring started with a two-run single in the top of the first, but the Spartans promptly answered with a game-tying two-run double by Shania Cope in the bottom half. Mia Arndt then put Montour on top with a two-run single in the bottom of the second inning, causing Rodriguez to turn to Ross out of the bullpen — a decision that might have saved the game for Belle Vernon.

Belle Vernon’s Talia Ross pitches against Montour in the WPIAL Class 4A championship on Wednesday, May 31, 2023, at California’s Lilley Field. Belle Vernon won, 8-7, in extra innings. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

In the top of the third, Zubovic tied things back up with a two-run single for the Leopards, then Gia LaBrie came through with an RBI single to give the Spartans a 5-4 lead in the bottom of the fourth. Zubovic added another RBI single in the top of the fifth to the game at 5, but Belle Vernon squandered a golden opportunity to take the lead.

After a bunt by Ross appeared to load the bases, both Ross and Zubovic got thrown out on the basepaths for an inning-ending double play while mistakenly trying to advance. That kept the score tied at 5, and Ross came up with two huge strikeouts to escape a pair of jams in the bottom of the sixth and seventh to send the game to extras.

“It feels amazing,” Ross said. “[Rodriguez] keeps it in a lot and doesn’t really show how important to him it is, but we all know how much it means to him. We all wanted to do this for him.”

After getting plunked by two pitches and run over on a collision on the basepaths earlier in the game, Lexi Daniels put her toughness on full display by remaining in the game and driving in the go-ahead run with an RBI triple in the top of the eighth. Gracie Sokol then added a sac fly, and VanDivner tacked on a crucial insurance run with an RBI single for her fourth hit of the game, bringing home what proved to be the game-winning run.

“It’s so insane. I’ve been wanting this forever,” VanDivner said. “I know how hard it was for [Rodriguez] losing his wife. Ever since the beginning of the season, we’ve talked about dedicating the season to him and his wife. I know how much his family wanted us to win this.”

Belle Vernon’s Mia Zubovic, left, and Sydney Callaway celebrate with their first-place medals after their 8-7 victory against Montour in the WPIAL Class 4A championship on Wednesday at California’s Lilley Field. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Even facing a three-run deficit in the bottom of the eighth, Montour never stopped battling. After loading the bases on a walk, fielder’s choice and hit by pitch, LaBrie came home to score on an RBI groundout by Shania Cope, cutting the deficit to 8-6.

Kaitlyn Molitoris then stepped to the plate with runners on second and third and knocked an RBI single through the hole, but Jana Hess got thrown out at the plate while trying to score from second after an errant throw. Hess appeared to slide safely under the tag for what would have been the game-tying run, but instead, the play brought an end to the game and brought Belle Vernon a dramatic 8-7 win for its fourth WPIAL title since 2015 and fifth overall.

“I’ve won one in the last inning, being down, 4-1. We came back to win, 5-4. So you never know what’s going to happen,” Rodriguez said. “Luckily we had a good bounce and a good pass.”

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.

Steve Rotstein

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.