Hempfield and sophomore ace Riley Miller stood toe-to-toe with the best player and team in the state in a heavyweight fight for the ages on Thursday afternoon at Penn State’s Beard Field.
By the time the dust had settled, North Penn and Maryland recruit Julia Shearer emerged victorious with a hard-fought 1-0 win in the PIAA Class 6A title game — but not without receiving all they could handle from the scrappy and fearless Spartans (21-4), who did an excellent job making contact against the most dominant pitcher in the state. Shearer finished with nine strikeouts while surrendering four hits and one walk in a complete-game shutout, finishing her senior season with a whopping 355 strikeouts to only 14 free passes after being named the Gatorade Pa. Player of the Year for the second year in a row.
“She’s good, obviously. She wouldn’t be there if she wasn’t,” Hempfield coach Tina Madison said about Shearer. “I think we did well. The first pitch of the game was a single. We put the ball in play.”
With 11 home runs on the season, Shearer is also one of the most dangerous hitters in the state, and she went 1 for 1 at the plate while getting intentionally walked in her other two plate appearances. The Spartans started the game with eight batters in a row putting a ball in play before she registered her first strikeout, but Shearer saved her best work for last, striking out the side in the top of the seventh to cap off her second state title in three seasons and the fifth overall for North Penn (28-0).
“The first time, I let her hit, because she’s the leadoff batter of the game,” Madison said. “But after that, they had a runner on second both times she came up, so first base was open, so we put her on.”
Hempfield also hoped to win its fifth state title on Thursday, but instead fell to 4-1 all time in PIAA championship appearances as North Penn joined Parkland and Pennsbury as the only teams to win five state titles.
Miller was stellar in the circle for the Spartans, but that’s to be expected at this point. Miller kept North Penn’s powerful lineup in check while allowing one run on seven hits in six innings of work, and she kept Hempfield’s hopes alive by escaping a bases-loaded jam in the fifth with a pair of harmless groundouts back to the mound.
Junior right fielder Maggie Howard also shined for the Spartans with her dazzling defense, making a spectacular diving catch on a sharp liner in the fourth inning before gunning down a runner at the plate with a perfect throw to end the sixth. The Georgetown recruit also went 1 for 3 with a double at the plate.
“She played excellent,” Madison said. “Honestly, the [double] she hit off the changeup would have been out of probably any stadium, but their center field is 220 feet.”
After Howard’s diving catch in the fourth, North Penn produced the only run of the game after back-to-back doubles by Gianna Cimino and Sophia Orth. And with a pitcher like Shearer in the circle, one run is usually more than enough. Shearer finished the season with 22 shutouts in 28 starts and only five earned runs allowed all season.
Hempfield squandered its best chance to score against Shearer in the top of the fifth, when senior Mia Bandieramonte got hit by a pitch and Howard then doubled to center, putting runners on second and third with one out. But Shearer got Claire Mitchell to pop up to second and Lauren Howard to ground out to third to end the threat and keep the shutout intact.
Leading off the sixth, Spartans junior Sarah Podkul gutted out a 13-pitch at-bat after fouling a pitch off her foot, and eventually Podkul got the better of Shearer with a seeing-eye single up the middle. That would be Hempfield’s last baserunner of the game, though, as Shearer retired the final six batters in order to polish off her phenomenal career with one final masterpiece.
“[Podkul] had one of the best at-bats I’ve seen all year,” Madison said. “We just didn’t have the timely hit. … We’re extremely proud of the girls and the season they had. It’s tough to lose like that.”