LORETTO - With two errors, Central High School shortstop Taylor McKnight wasn't having the best of games in the field as her Lady Dragon softball team took on WPIAL champion Deer Lakes.
At least, not until it really mattered.
Central hit three home runs, including two by Kate Blattenberger. But it took some nails pitching by Kylie Gunnett when the pressure was on for that to matter and McKnight's stab of a low line drive to make it hold up as the Lady Dragons' Cinderella playoff run continued with a 4-2 PIAA Class AA comeback win on a picturesque Friday afternoon at St. Francis University's scenic Red Flash Field.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Central’s Kylie Gunnett (left) is embraced by teammate Marissa Snyder after the game.
Central improved to 19-6. The Lady Dragons' first-ever foray beyond the second-round of the District 6 playoffs will continue on Monday when they meet Neshannock in the semifinals back at Red Flash Field in Loretto at 2 p.m.
That might not have happened had not McKnight, who helped give Deer Lakes hope earlier in the inning when she unsuccessfully tried to backhand a grounder for her second error, ranged slightly to her left and reached down to grab Candace Scanga's liner up the middle with the tying run on second for the final out of the game.
"I missed a ball earlier in the inning. I misread it and it came up too high on my glove. The last one I knew I could get to. It was knuckling and started to tail, but I got there,'' McKnight said. "It was amazing.''
Although the Lady Dragons and their fans had to have their hearts in their throats when they saw the shot off Scanga's bat head, McKnight's teammates believed if anyone could make the play, she could.
"I have complete confidence in Taylor McKnight,'' said Blattenberger, who probably would have had to try to throw out Leanne Crawford from center field to keep the Lancers from knotting the score. "It doesn't matter how many errors she makes. She's a great defensive player. She's always been there for us, always will be.''
"I have total faith in her,'' Gunnett added.
Gunnett fought her own battles all game long against a Deer Lakes offense that scored 10 runs or more nine times in its previous 21 contests. The junior right-hander started off the game by giving up a bunt single and hitting the next batter, with both those Lancers eventually coming on to score. She allowed the leadoff hitter to reach base each of the first four innings and five of seven and was consistently getting behind in the count.
However, she finished with a four-hitter and didn't surrender a run after the first inning.
"I do it for our seniors. It's their last year, and they really want it,'' Gunnett said of how she kept her composure. "The only thing I was thinking was, 'I have to do this for Kate and Paige [Meck].'''
Seven Deer Lakes runners were left stranded, all but one in scoring position. It was only the Lancers' second loss this season in 22 starts.
"We couldn't string the hits together,'' Deer Lakes coach Craig Taliani said. "[Gunnett] did a nice job. She pitched out of some jams. And their defense saved the game at the end.''
While Deer Lakes was having trouble making its runners count, Central was making the most out of a little - three of the Lady Dragons' first four hits left the park.
Blattenberger and Gunnett tied the game in the top of the second with back-to-back homers, Gunnett's an impressive blast to left.
"Our strength is our hitting. Everybody in our lineup is over a .300 hitter and five out of our nine are hitting .400 or better,'' Central coach Dale Walters said. "All year long, it's been one through nine. I think our No. 9 hitter has 21 RBIs.''
Blattenberger, who Walters said is being recruited hard by St. Francis, looked very much at home in Loretto. Her first homer appeared to be a high fly that just kept carrying over the fence in center. The second, coming with two outs and a full count in the sixth inning and Ashley Smith on first after a single, was a shot to left-center.
She's closing in on double-digit home runs as a senior.
"I worked on my swing this year. Before the game, I was having trouble. Dale put confidence in me. I had two strikes, and I just swung hard and put my hands out there,'' Blattenberger said. "We haven't been in these situations before, but we know how to handle it.''
Although Gunnett was on deck and it would have put the go-ahead run on second, Taliano said the intention was not to give Blattenberger anything good to hit.
"That was the player that we didn't want to have beat us, and she had a great game. She's a great stick, one of the best we've seen in the playoffs,'' Taliano said of Blattenberger, who was robbed of a potential double when Lancer third baseman Tiffany Edwards reached high to grab her scorching liner in the fifth. "We stayed away. We thought we had her on the pitch before that was on the corner but didn't get the call, and the next one drifted in.''
Now the District 6 runner-up Lady Dragons are two wins from an improbable state title.
"It's great. I'm ready. I just want to play for a championship and bring one home,'' McKnight said.
CENTRAL (4): M. Snyder 2b 401, Garman c 400, Smith 3b 311, McKnight ss 300, Blattenberger cf 322, Gunnett p 311, Barnes cr 000, Meck rf 201, K. Snyder 1b 300, J. Snyder lf 300. Totals - 28-4-6.
DEER LAKES (2): Babincak ss 311, Gozzard 2b 210, Scanga cf 300, Sarver 1b 300, Blinn c 201, Edwards 3b 300, Moretti p 200, Ketchell cr 000, Lubick rf 301, Crawford lf 301. Totals - 24-2-4.
SCORE OF INNINGS
Central020 002 0-4 6 3
Deer Lakes200 000 0-2 4 1
E-Smith, Gozzard, McKnight 2. LOB-Central 4, Deer Lakes 7. 2B-Crawford, Blinn. HR-Blattenberger 2, Gunnett. RBI-Blinn, Blattenberger 3, Gunnett. SAC-Scanga. Babincak. CS-Ketchell.
Central: Gunnett (W)-7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 2 SO.
Deer Lakes: Moretti (L)-7 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 4 SO.
HBP-By Gunnett (Gozzard).
Umpires: Greg Spiker, plate; Al Godissart, first; Annette Godissart, second; Kevin Spiker, third.
Team records: Central (19-6); Deer Lakes (20-2).