As a dominant pitcher and two-way star at Hempfield from 1998-2001, Tina Madison enjoyed one of the most decorated careers of any player in the school’s long and storied softball history.
Now in her second year at the helm at her alma mater, Madison is already well on her way to potentially matching her accomplishments as a player. After a memorable 2-1 win in extra innings over defending champion Seneca Valley in the WPIAL Class 6A title game, Madison has the Spartans back in the state finals following an impressive three-game run in the PIAA tournament — 24 years after pitching the program to its first state title.
Having already joined the short list of coaches to win a WPIAL softball title as both a player and coach, Madison is attempting to join an even more exclusive club of player-coach state champions when Hempfield (21-3) takes on undefeated District 1 champion North Penn (27-0) at 4 p.m. Thursday at Penn State’s Nittany Lion Softball Park. This will be the fifth PIAA championship appearance for the Spartans, who have never lost in four previous trips to the state title game.
“Thanks for reminding me,” Madison said with a laugh.
Sure, there will be pressure that comes with the lofty standards and reputation associated with Hempfield’s prestigious program. But why should that bother Madison? After all, she’s personally responsible for helping to cultivate and instill that culture as much as any other player, past or present.
“We talk about that a lot with the girls — let’s play for the program, let’s play for each other, let’s play for the girls before and after us,” Madison said. “Hempfield has quite the tradition, and we want to carry that on.”
In 1999, a fiery young sophomore then known as Tina Skelly pitched the Spartans to the PIAA Class 3A title — the largest classification offered back then — with a 2-1 win against Williamsport. Now, 24 years later, Madison will entrust another star sophomore to take the circle and pitch Hempfield to the promised land.
Riley Miller’s story is an inspirational one of toughness, dedication and perseverance. After breaking her leg in a WPIAL quarterfinal game last season, Miller toughed out the injury and continued to pitch through it, but ended up missing the Spartans’ WPIAL semifinal loss to Seneca Valley. After rehabbing and recovering from the injury in the offseason, Miller has put together a remarkable sophomore season while doing her best work in the postseason as the lights get brighter.
“Riley has been in a lot of big games in her career as a young pitcher,” Madison said. “Not just with high school, but with travel ball. She knows the deal. She knows we’re going to be facing a tough opponent. It makes her better, I think.”
Miller allowed one run on four hits while striking out 11 in the WPIAL championship win against Seneca, then pitched back-to-back shutouts in the first two rounds of the PIAA tournament before twirling another gem in a 6-1 win against District 3 champion Cumberland Valley in Monday’s PIAA Class 6A semifinals.
“Honestly, Riley has pitched the way Riley has pitched since I met her last year,” Madison said. “I can’t really say she’s done better or done worse [in the postseason]. Riley, to me, is Riley. And she’s a star.”
Miller is undoubtedly a vital piece to Hempfield’s championship puzzle, but the Spartans’ greatest strength lies in their depth, balance and team-first approach. From the top of the order all the way down to No. 9, every hitter in Hempfield’s lineup is capable of providing a spark at any moment. And when some of the Spartans’ bats go silent, Madison knows she can always count on them to make up for it with their gloves.
“That’s always our strength,” Madison said. “I preach on that with our girls. I really try not to have one kid beat us. I force the hand of other players on the team, because we are solid top to bottom. There’s no holes. I’m not hiding somebody. It’s a very good feeling as a coach, when your defense steps on the field and you don’t care where the ball goes.”
Awaiting Hempfield on the other side of the bracket is a certified juggernaut led by the Gatorade Pa. Player of the Year in senior pitcher Julia Shearer. Shearer is a Maryland recruit sporting an 0.22 ERA and a whopping 346 strikeouts to only 13 walks, and she is also batting well above .600 with 11 home runs and 34 RBIs on the year.
Needless to say, the Spartans will have their work cut out for them against North Penn on Thursday, and they will likely enter the championship contest as a heavy underdog in the eyes of many. Then again, that’s just the way they like it.
“We’re going to be up and we’re going to be prepared. I’m going to have them ready to go,” Madison said. “We’re going to make some adjustments to our swings and make some adjustments in practice the next few days, and we’ll be ready.”
After having its perfect season derailed by Trinity in the WPIAL semifinals, Shaler missed out on the chance to play for a WPIAL title. Now, two weeks later, the Titans are one win away from bringing home the ultimate prize when they take on District 3 champion Northern York (23-4) in the PIAA Class 5A title game at 4 p.m. Friday.
Shaler is no stranger to playing in the big game, although it has been 14 years since the Titans last made it to the state finals. Shaler appeared in the PIAA championship game three years in a row from 2004-06, winning two, and the Titans (22-1) are making their sixth trip to the state title game in program history.
“Anything can happen now,” Shaler coach Tom Sorce said. “We’re just excited to be here. At the beginning of the year, we didn’t think we could go this far.”
The Titans have only two returning starters from last year, but both players are all-section standouts in Eloise Facher and Bethany Rodman. A Kent State recruit, Facher is a senior right fielder and leadoff hitter with virtually no flaws in her game. She hits for contact, hits for power, glides around the bases and plays terrific defense.
Rodman has been supplanted by Bria Bosiljevac as Shaler’s No. 1 pitcher for the postseason, but she still boasts the most powerful bat in the lineup. Armstrong walked Rodman every time she stepped to the plate in the Titans’ 8-5 PIAA semifinal win — except for her final at-bat, when she walloped a two-run homer to pad Shaler’s lead in the top of the eighth inning.
And as for Bosiljevac, the fearless freshman has played with a poise beyond her years while helping to propel the Titans to the brink of a state title. She racked up 13 strikeouts in that PIAA semifinal win against Armstrong on Monday after allowing only one hit through the game’s first six innings.
“She settled down, got us out of a jam [in the bottom of the seventh], and the rest was history,” Sorce said.
Montour’s controversial 8-7 loss to Belle Vernon in extra innings in the WPIAL championship game has been well documented, and the Spartans would surely like to close the book on that chapter once and for all. But first, one more opponent stands between them and the sweetest form of redemption.
Going into a clash with District 1 champion Blue Mountain (24-3) in Thursday’s PIAA Class 4A championship game at 1:30 p.m., a win would bring Montour its first state title in program history. The Spartans’ only previous state championship appearance came in a 5-1 loss to another District 1 foe in Pennsbury back in 2001.
“It would be a great way to cap off the season,” Montour coach Ken Kutchman said.
For the Spartans to raise their first PIAA championship banner, they will need to keep playing with the same energy, confidence and unwavering belief that they have displayed throughout this state playoff run. After losing in the WPIAL title game, Montour has rattled off three consecutive wins against quality competition while allowing a grand total of three runs.
Senior pitcher Kaitlyn Molitoris has raised her game to a new level during the state playoffs, striking out 14 in a complete-game shutout against Archbishop Wood in the PIAA quarterfinals before allowing one run on only three hits in a 4-1 win over Elizabeth Forward in Monday’s semifinal round. Her fellow seniors, center fielder Mia Arndt and left fielder Avrie Polo, have both had spectacular seasons as well with eight home runs apiece. The trio will surely go down in history as three of the best players to ever don the Spartans’ black and gold uniforms, but one more win could take their legacies to even greater heights.
“They’ve done it all year,” Kutchman said about the senior trio. “They’ve done it their entire careers. We expect that at this point from them. They’re doing things that not many kids in our program have done.”
Last year, Neshannock made a bit of history when the Lancers swept the WPIAL and PIAA titles in both girls basketball and softball. Now, their Lawrence County neighbors from Union have a chance to repeat the feat with one more win in the PIAA Class 1A title game against District 11 champion Tri-Valley (23-2) at 11 a.m. Friday.
The Scotties (20-3) may have spent a lot of time in Neshannock’s shadow in recent years, but with a WPIAL football title in tow along with a WPIAL championship appearance from the boys basketball team, it’s tough to single out any school in the area enjoying a more successful year than Union.
It has already been a groundbreaking year for the Scotties, but don’t think for a second they’ll be satisfied with simply making their first state championship appearance. After a disappointing 1-0 loss in last year’s PIAA quarterfinals, Union coach Doug Fisher told his players on the bus ride home they were going to win the whole thing next year — and now they’re one win away from making him into a prophet.
“We didn’t really prepare for anything more than the WPIAL last year,” Fisher said. “We just set our goal to get there, and that was it. Anything after that was a bonus.”
Mia Preuhs generates most of the headlines for the Scotties, and rightfully so. The sophomore pitcher also doubles as one of Union’s most dangerous hitters, and the freshman duo of Olivia Williams and Olivia Benedict have provided a huge offensive boost along with proven performers like Allie Ross, Addie Nogay, Mallory Gorgacz and Tori May.
Fisher hopes the Scotties won’t dig themselves into a hole like they have in comeback victories in the WPIAL championship and PIAA semifinals, but at least he knows his players have zero quit in them — and if they need a late rally to bring home the state title, he feels confident the Scotties will be able to get it done.
“I teach the girls, they put their uniform on every morning the way you do,” Fisher said. “There’s nobody different. There’s no Superman. Just go out and play your game.”