LORETTO - The Neshannock softball team's lineup is a nightmare to defend, and it has most likely kept opposing coaches awake at night.
The Lady Lancers' lineup is filled with speedy left-handed hitters who can drag bunt and slap-hit and beat out the throw to first base. It's like watching a college team at the high school level.
Central worked in practice on defending such a team, but Neshannock worked the short game to near perfection in Monday's PIAA Class AA semifinal game to win, 15-5, in five innings at St. Francis University's Red Flash Field.
Mirror photos by Gary M. Baranec
Neshannock’s Katy Burrelli scores the final run of Monday’s game in front of Central catcher Taylor Garman.
Central’s Ashley Smith shows her frustration during the loss to Neshannock.
The Lancers beat out six bunt hits in very close plays at first base even with Central using a drawn-in infield, and they pressured the Lady Dragons into making errant throws that led to six errors and seven unearned runs.
Neshannock blew open a three-run game in the fifth inning by scoring seven runs to end the game in five innings and advance to its first state title game.
"They executed everything they did," Central center fielder Kate Blattenberger said. "Their slap hitters are way better than I ever imagined them to be. Way better. They are great at what they do, and they got on base just like they had to."
"The truth is they were better at their craft than I anticipated," Central coach Dale Walters said. "They were very good at what they did. The trouble is in high school base you may run into one or two [hitters] like that a year, not five on the same team. I was impressed."
The 23-1 Lady Lancers, who had 15 hits, will play Warrior Run, a 15-1 winner over 2010 state champion Nanticoke, at 3 p.m. Friday at Penn State's Beard Field at Nittany Lion Softball Park.
The Lady Dragons, who finished their best season ever with a 19-6 record, walked glumly to a point beyond the outfield and gathered in a circle. Blattenberger, a senior co-captain with Paige Mock, wiped away her own tears, and afterward told sophomore left fielder Janine Snyder not to cry.
"This is the worst feeling. It's really bad," said Blattenberger her voice cracked. "I wish we would have played better. They were obviously the better team."
"It's pretty disappointing," pitcher Kylie Gunnett said. "I really wanted to play for the championship. I know the whole team did, especially our seniors."
The tone was set in the first inning. After the Lady Dragons scored two runs in the top of inning on an Ashley Smith ground ball and a Taylor McKnight sacrifice fly, the Lancers scored six runs in the bottom of the inning.
Rayanna Furst, a track star in a leadoff hitter's body who along with her sister, Amanda, and Madison Altmyer went 3-for-4, reached on a bunt single. The next hitter, Madison Shaffer, also beat out a bunt hit.
Marissa DeMatteo's grounder wasn't handled, and a run scored. Amanda Furst laced a single to left to plate two more runs. Katy Burrelli added a two-run triple, and she scored on a Jamie Graziani sacrifice fly.
"We got a lot of bunts down," Neshannock coach Tracy Kimmel said, "and it created a lot of situations on the bases. It puts a lot of pressure on the defense."
Central came back to within two runs, 7-5, when it scored three runs in the third inning. A Blattenberger RBI single and a Mock two-run double to right-center got the Lady Dragons within striking range.
But the threat ended on a heads-up infield play by the Lancers, who got Kassidy Snyder out at first and caught Mock rounding the bag at third too far to complete a double play. Central stranded runners at second and third in the fourth.
"We have a five, six or seven-run inning in us at any time," Walters said. "It just didn't happen today. We were a little tentative at times, and I guess it's youth, and the pressure gets to them."
Leading 8-5 in the fifth, Neshannock's short game produced seven runs, five hits and three errors, and the Lady Dragons never got an out.
With only Blattenberger and Mock graduating, Central's attention turned toward next season.
"We'll get over this. The sun will come up tomorrow," Gunnett said. "We'll work harder because we know we can get here and what it will take to make it to the championship."
CENTRAL (5): M. Snyder 2b 211, Garman c 211, Barnes cr 000, Smith 3b 300, McKnight ss 211, Blattenberger cf 311, Gunnett p 201, Aiello cr 010, Mock rf 301, K. Snyder 1b 200, J. Snyder lf 100. Totals - 20-5-6.
NESHANNOCK (15): R. Furst cf 423, Shaffer 3b 432, DeMatteo 2b 331, A. Furst p 403, G. Zingaro cr 020, Altmyer lf 423, Fischer 1b 312, Burrelli rf 421, Iorio c 200, Graziani ss 300. Totals - 31-15-15.
SCORE BY INNINGS
Central203 00X X-5 6 6
Neshannock610 17X X-15 15 1
E-Gunnett 2, M. Snyder, Smith, McKnight, K. Snyder; Graziani. 2B-McKnight, Mock; Altmyer. 3B-Burrelli. RBI-Mock 2, Smith, McKnight, Blattenberger; A. Furst 4, Burrelli 3, Graziani 2, DeMatteo, Altmyer, Fischer. SAC-DeMatteo, Iorio, Graziani. SF-McKnight. SB-Iorio 2, DeMatteo. LOB-Central 5, Neshannock 9. DP-Neshannock. HBP-Fischer.
Central: Gunnett-4 IP (pitched to 9 batters in 5th), 15 H, 15 R, 8 ER, 1 BB, 2 SO.
Neshannock: A. Furst-5 IP, 6 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 4 BB, 4 SO.
Records: Central (19-7); Neshannock (23-1).