When it comes to the Laurel vs. Neshannock and Carmichaels vs. Chartiers-Houston softball rivalries, there doesn’t need to be much at stake to create an electric atmosphere typically reserved for marquee matchups in the highest classifications.

So what can fans expect when the stakes are at their highest? Well, if you’re a fan of fireworks shows, let’s just say the “Fourth of July” will be arriving a few weeks early when these fierce section rivals collide for the right to represent Western Pa. in the PIAA Class 1A and Class 2A championships later this week at Penn State’s Beard Field.

“We had a good feeling that it would be us and Laurel at this point in the state playoffs,” said Lancers coach Jackie Lash. “It’s an exciting time of year. It’s been exciting for the past three years now.”

Laurel and Neshannock have gotten to know each other all too well in recent years, with Monday’s matchup at 4 p.m. at Mohawk marking the 10th meeting between the Lawrence County rivals over the previous three seasons. The Lancers have won each of the past nine games in the series since the start of the 2022 season, with the Spartans (20-5) holding a record of 55-5 against all other foes during that span — and no, they don’t need a reminder.

“Neshannock is a good ball team,” said Laurel coach Frank Duddy. “They’ve been on top for a couple years now. No one has been able to knock them off. We’re going to take another crack at it. We’ve got to play mistake-free softball.

“We’ll be ready, and we’ll see what happens.”

From left, Laurel’s Riley Balcom, Autumn Boyd and Addie Deal celebrate after a 5-3 win against Bentworth in the PIAA Class 2A quarterfinals on Thursday, June 6, 2024, at Gateway High School. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Despite the intense nature of their games, both coaches alluded to a feeling of mutual respect between the teams that carries over into their fan bases. And no matter what happens on Monday, you can bet the followers of the losing team will pour their full support into cheering on the winner in the state finals.

“People lose sight of the fact that we share a border up here,” Duddy said. “These girls all know each other. We play together in the summer. We have a cordial relationship. We like them and they like us. At the end of the day, we’re all friends again. It’s a different kind of atmosphere.

“If they were down on the other side of Pittsburgh, we might hate them. But they make it hard to hate them.”

One of these two proud programs has claimed each of the past six WPIAL Class 2A titles, with the Spartans winning three consecutive WPIAL crowns from 2018-21 before Neshannock began its current reign in 2022. The Lancers recently defeated Bentworth to complete their own WPIAL championship three-peat, and they are now playing in their third consecutive PIAA semifinal while holding a record of 72-1 over the past three seasons.

With two more victories, Neshannock (24-0) would become only the seventh team to win WPIAL and PIAA titles with a perfect record and the first school to do so twice. The Lancers finished 26-0 en route to capturing WPIAL and state titles in 2022, then carried a record of 22-0 into last year’s state semifinals before a heartbreaking 9-6 defeat in a battle of unbeatens against eventual PIAA champion Everett.

Now, Neshannock finds itself back in the same position one year later, once again on the brink of another historic season.

“While I say we try not to focus on the previous year, there were slight conversations here and there about how bad that disappointment felt and how terrible that bus ride home was,” Lash said. “The girls will tell anybody, we don’t want to feel like that again.”

Neshannock players celebrate their 3-0 win against Bentworth in the WPIAL Class 2A championship on Thursday, May 30, 2024, at PennWest California’s Lilley Field. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Although the Lancers have made the rivalry look increasingly one-sided lately, it’s important to note that the majority of the matchups have been hotly contested battles, with Neshannock prevailing in a pair of regular-season contests earlier this season by scores of 3-0 and 5-1. The Lancers won all four meetings between the teams in 2022, but one was an 8-5 walk-off victory in extra innings, and another was a narrow 1-0 triumph in the WPIAL semifinals.

So before you pencil Neshannock into another state championship game, you might want to think twice about writing off Autumn Boyd, Addie Deal and the rest of Laurel’s loaded lineup.

“I don’t think we feel the pressure, to be honest. We’ve been in this situation a number of times,” Duddy said. “No one gives us a shot to win this. Not that they don’t give us a shot — they just think Neshannock will come out on top. But there have only been a couple of times they’ve really slapped us. That [12-2 loss in the 2023] WPIAL final, we got beat up pretty good in that. I don’t remember anything other than that where they really clobbered us.

“We’re usually there and have a chance to win. We just can’t get over the top.”

One of the most feared sluggers in the area, Deal is batting a team-high .507 with 16 doubles, 7 home runs, 39 RBIs and 31 runs scored while slugging 1.056 for the Spartans. Boyd is batting .500 with eight doubles, two homers and 32 RBIs, and Ivy Pancher is batting .395 with five home runs, 27 RBIs and 31 runs scored.

In 17 appearances in the circle, Boyd is 10-4 with 163 strikeouts to 32 walks in 95⅔ innings, boasting an impressive 1.10 ERA and 0.77 WHIP.

“I don’t think [Boyd] has to prove anything,” Duddy said. “She’s in a situation where we split a lot of pitching time up here. We’ve got three good pitchers, so we try to get them all time. If we ran her out there every game, she would be right up there with the numbers and have all the headlines. But I don’t think she begrudges it.

“She relishes these big games. She usually comes through in them.”

Neshannock’s Addy Frye is 17-0 with an 0.52 ERA, 0.59 WHIP and 193 strikeouts to 10 walks in 95 innings going into the PIAA semifinals. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Speaking of big-game pitchers, nobody has shined under the bright lights like Neshannock ace Addy Frye. A three-time WPIAL champion with a career record of 65-1, Frye has posted four consecutive shutouts in the postseason, including a one-hitter with 17 strikeouts in a 5-0 win against District 10 champion Saegertown in the PIAA quarterfinals.

On the season, Frye is 17-0 with an 0.52 ERA, 0.59 WHIP and 193 strikeouts to just 10 walks in 95 innings pitched. The Providence recruit is also batting .475 with seven doubles, five homers and 30 RBIs, and she is now up to 20 home runs for her career. Not far behind Frye with 17 career homers is junior third baseman Gabby Quinn, batting .359 with five home runs, 26 RBIs and 27 runs scored on the year.

Quinn is one of two Kent State recruits on the team along with junior Miley Anderson, a speedy leadoff hitter who leads the team with a .493 batting average, 38 runs scored and 30 stolen bases. Sophomore Jaidon Nogay is a sensational center fielder batting .472 in the No. 2 hole with 6 doubles, 2 triples, 16 RBIs, 28 runs scored and 19 steals, and senior catcher Gabby Perod is batting .412 as the cleanup hitter with 13 doubles and 23 RBIs.

“Both teams have to go out and play their hardest,” Lash said. “You know you’re going to get your best from Addy and Autumn. We’re just going to focus on what we know how to do and keep practicing it, and hopefully come in with a good positive mindset on Monday.”

Laurel coach Frank Duddy will try to guide the Spartans to their first state championship game with an upset win against archrival Neshannock. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Class 1A

In Class 1A, Section 2 co-champions Carmichaels and Chartiers Houston will reignite the flames of their heated rivalry at 2 p.m. Monday at Peters Township’s Peterswood Park for the final chapter of an epic four-part series. Although the Buccaneers have won two of the first three installments this spring, including a 3-2 come-from-behind win in the WPIAL semifinals, you’d be hard-pressed to find two more evenly matched teams in the WPIAL.

Heading into Monday’s PIAA semifinal showdown, the combined score in the series remains knotted up at 14-14 after 29 action-packed innings of play — including a 7-5 win by the Mighty Mikes in 15 innings that took more than two weeks to complete.

“We both have a lot of respect for each other and each other’s programs,” said longtime Chartiers-Houston coach Tricia Alderson. “I think it’s going to be two good teams battling it out.”

The Bucs captured their first WPIAL title since 2012 and ninth overall with a 9-5 win against two-time defending champion Union, but they still have raised only one state championship banner in their long and storied history. That state title came in their most recent PIAA championship appearance in 2010, and Alderson is eager to finally make it back to the biggest game of them all — not for her own sake, but for the kids who have never experienced a moment like that before.

“It would be great for the girls,” Alderson said. “I’ve been there as a player and as a coach, but they haven’t. I want it really more for them than for myself.”

Like Chartiers-Houston, Carmichaels (18-3) has only one state title to its credit, when the Mighty Mikes became one of only six WPIAL teams to complete a perfect season in 1998. Coach Dave Briggs was an assistant on that team, and his pitching coach, Nikki Onderko — then known as Nikki Gasti — starred in the circle as a legendary pitcher for Carmichaels that season.

Helping bring things full circle, Onderko’s daughter, sophomore Bailey Barnyak, is now the Mighty Mikes’ ace pitcher. In 19 starts this season, Barnyak holds a record of 17-2 with 218 strikeouts to 47 walks in 136 innings pitched, boasting an ERA of 1.12 and a WHIP of 0.82. At the plate, she is batting .310 with two doubles, two triples and 19 RBIs, and she has also drawn a team-leading 17 walks, giving her an on-base percentage of .482.

One of the top sophomore pitchers in the area, Carmichaels ace Bailey Barnyak is one win away from leading the Mighty Mikes to the state championship game. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Teaming up with Barnyak to form one of the WPIAL’s top tandems is sophomore shortstop Carys McConnell, a true five-tool threat slashing .520/.580/1.080 with 10 doubles, 4 triples, 8 home runs, 38 RBIs and 24 runs scored.

“Those two really injected life into our program,” Briggs said. “We were solid and so forth, but last year, too — Carys injected a lot of her offensive and defensive skill. She’s such a great all-around player. And then obviously, Bailey on the mound already gave us an edge. And our junior class is really, really strong.

“It just gave us that little extra boost that we needed.”

Elsewhere, junior catcher Katie Waggett is enjoying a breakout season at the top of the lineup, batting .500 with four doubles and three triples to go with a team-high 32 runs scored and 21 stolen bases.

“This has been a big year for Katie,” Briggs said. “She’s unbelievable behind the plate. Crazy athletic. The plays she makes back there — her arm is unbelievable. I think a lot of people are starting to see this year what kind of player she is.”

For the Mighty Mikes, it must feel like staring into a mirror when facing the Bucs (20-2). Chartiers-Houston also features a terrific pitcher in junior Meadow Ferri, who is now 19-2 with an 0.85 ERA and 231 strikeouts in 123⅔ innings while batting .453 with three home runs and 30 RBIs.

“Typically, at this point, it’s pitching and defense that win close games,” Alderson said. “Obviously, with softball, it starts in the circle. Both teams are very fortunate and blessed to have good pitching. And I would imagine that their stats are pretty similar. It’s going to be a good matchup.”

Chartiers-Houston’s Meadow Ferri is putting together a memorable postseason run while attempting to lead the Buccaneers to their second state title. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Alongside Ferri, junior catcher Ella Richey is a prolific power hitter putting together another memorable campaign after bashing 14 home runs as a sophomore. So far this season, Richey is batting .554 with nine home runs, 31 RBIs and 39 runs scored out of the leadoff spot.

Meanwhile, sophomore shortstop Lauren Rush gives teams another dangerous threat to worry about in the No. 2 spot, batting .328 with six home runs, 16 RBIs and 29 runs scored.

“They have some great hitters. We have some great hitters. We both have good pitching,” Alderson said. “I think both of our defenses have done pretty well at times and maybe not well at other times. It’s very similar in a lot of ways. … I know it’s cliche, but it’s going to come down to execution on both sides.

“There might be mistakes, but how do you respond to those moments of adversity? I think it’s just a combination of all of those things.”

Regardless of the outcome on Monday, anything less than a thrilling back-and-forth tilt would come as a major surprise to everyone in attendance. And no matter what happens, the rivalry will finally receive some closure as the Bucs prepare to make the move to Class 2A for the upcoming two-year cycle.

The only thing left to decide is who gets to laugh last.

“The first time we played them, I said, ‘Hey, we might play each other four times this year.’ And here we are,” Briggs said. “I like to think that at least one team out of our section is going to be a state champion, hopefully. I just hope it’s us.”

Thomas Jefferson’s Zoe Krizan, right, and Morgan Alisesky race home to score against Armstrong in the WPIAL Class 5A championship on Thursday, May 30, 2024, at PennWest California’s Lilley Field. Both Krizan and Alisesky are batting above .400 this season for the Jaguars. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Class 5A

On the heels of another long bus ride to Norlo Park Complex in Chambersburg, Pa., where Thomas Jefferson earned an upset win over West Chester East to keep its “Cinderella” season alive, the Jaguars are set to embark on another journey to Mount Aloysius College. There, they will take on District 6 champion Central Mountain (16-5) at 4:30 p.m. Monday for a spot in the state championship game.

No Thomas Jefferson team has reached the state finals before, but these Jaguars sure do feel like a team of destiny. After finishing only 9-7 in the regular season, they received a No. 10 seed for the WPIAL tournament, then advanced all the way to the championship game before falling to top-seeded Armstrong, 9-3. Now, Thomas Jefferson (14-8) is the last WPIAL team standing in Class 5A, and the Jaguars largely have freshman pitcher Aubrey Shaffer to thank.

After twirling a dazzling complete-game gem in the PIAA quarterfinal win against West Chester East, Shaffer’s ERA now sits at 3.23 with 99 strikeouts to 32 walks in 141 innings pitched. At the plate, Morgan Alisesky and Zoe Krizan are both batting above .400, and Krizan leads the team with five home runs and 23 RBIs.

For Central Mountain, junior Cora Myers is the top run producer with nine home runs and 28 RBIs to go with a .406 batting average. Senior Harley Kunes is batting a team-high .492 with four homers and 14 RBIs, and fellow senior Madison Hardy is batting .484 with four home runs and 16 RBIs.

From left, Elizabeth Forward’s Torie Bickerton, Hannah Evans and Julia Resnik celebrate after Resnik scored against Chartiers Valley in the PIAA Class 4A quarterfinals on Thursday, June 6, 2024, at Gateway High School. Elizabeth Forward won, 11-1. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Class 4A

Other than a 2-1 loss against Class 6A powerhouse Hempfield on April 22, Elizabeth Forward has been flawless in 2024, outscoring its opponents by a combined score of 231-15 on the year while capturing its second WPIAL title. Now, the Warriors are one win away from clinching their second state championship appearance, with District 12 third-place finisher Archbishop Wood (13-7) standing as the last team in their way at Norlo Park Complex at 4 p.m. Monday.

Senior pitcher Shelby Telegdy seems intent on going out with a bang for Elizabeth Forward (22-1), as the Seton Hill recruit has elevated her already stellar play to new heights during the Warriors’ postseason run. After blasting a home run and tallying six RBIs in a blowout win against Chartiers Valley in the PIAA quarterfinals, Telegdy is now slashing .580/.630/1.087 with 14 doubles, seven home runs and 36 RBIs, and she is 22-1 with an 0.46 ERA, 0.69 WHIP and 187 strikeouts to 22 walks in 122⅓ innings pitched.

Not to be outdone, sophomore shortstop Julia Resnik has followed up her remarkable debut season with an even better encore, slashing .551/.635/1.101 with 5 doubles, 6 triples, 7 homers, 27 RBIs and 44 runs scored.

Archbishop Wood is led by a trio of hitters with 20-plus RBIs in sophomore Allison Siegfried, junior Sophia Azzarano and senior Parker Kraus. Kraus is batting .547 with four doubles and 24 RBIs, while Azzarano is hitting .414 with four doubles and a team-high 25 RBIs, and Siegfried is batting .411 with 4 doubles, 2 triples, a home run and 20 RBIs.

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.