CRESSON — What had been an exciting and thrilling ride through the District 9 and state playoffs ended in true heartbreaking fashion for the Clearfield Area High School softball team Tuesday afternoon.
An astonishing, unbelievable pitching performance by freshman Emma Hipps had the Lady Bison in a scoreless battle with Bald Eagle Area through six innings of the PIAA Class AAA semifinal classic at the Ray and Louise Walker Complex on the Mount Aloysius College campus.
Then, with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Mara Hockenberry scored on a Maddy Perry single to give the District 6 champion Lady Eagles a 1-0 walk-off win and a trip to Penn State’s Beard Field Friday for the state championship game against undefeated Pine Grove.
Hipps was one-of-a-kind spectacular against the hard-hitting Lady Eagles, who had beaten the Lady Bison 17-2 in the season opener and 9-0 in April on their way to sharing the Mountain League title with 2017 Class AAA state champion Philipsburg-Osceola.
Only one of her hard-throwing, fast-working righthander’s first 54 pitches was called a ball by home plate umpire John Palko, an unheard-of feat. She finished with just five balls in 73 pitches.
The first five Lady Eagles and eight of the first nine went down on strikes, and Hipps was still working on a perfect game with two outs in the sixth inning, when BEA’s fourth bunt attempt for a hit was misplayed, allowing Madison Eckley to reach base.
Then, in the seventh, Hipps lost her stirring duel with Lady Eagle sophomore Maddie Peters which mesmerized the large crowd, including the Lady Bison fans who lined the hill behind left field.
The speedy Hockenberry beat out a perfectly-placed bunt down the third base line and was immediately sacrificed to second by Maralee Caldana.
After Hipps retired Peters, the cleanup hitter, on a pop-up to second baseman Kylee Hertlein, Maegan King was intentionally walked. Hockenberry and King then executed a double steal, so coach Derek Danver ordered an intentional walk to Autumn Tobias, too, setting up a force at every base.
The strategy backfired because no Lady Bison was able to track down the fly ball that Perry lifted toward left field for the game-winning RBI.
By the time the ball landed not very far behind shortstop, Hockenberry was only a step or two away leaving the Lady Bison and their followers stunned.
“These girls were determined, and they’re upset right now,” the crest-fallen Danver stated immediately after his saddened and dejected players had cleared out of the dugout. “They came in here with the mindset we’re going to win this game. They didn’t care if we got beat 17-2 at the beginning of the year. They played with heart.”
None more than Hipps, who wound up with 13 strikeouts and just the two hits and two intentional free passes allowed.
“She’s been great all year,” Danver said. “She went above and beyond what she’s been doing. And, unfortunately, we couldn’t push a run across for her.”
That’s because Peters, now 30-4 for her brief career, was just as stingy, surrendering only two singles by Karly Rumsky while striking out 16 with a variety of pitches, including a riser that was very effective in many of her 16 strikeouts. She issued three walks.
“She threw a great game,” Danver said. “We’ve struggled with her the last two years. The last time we played them, we had six or seven hits, but today she kept us off balance, and we watched some strikes.”
Only two Clearfield runners touched second base, Lauren Ressler with two outs in the second inning after she and Casey English drew walks and Rumsky with one out in the sixth.
The lone Lady Bison senior starter ripped a single past first baseman Lauren Fisher and advanced on a sacrifice bunt by Morgan Cheek.
That brought up Hipps, Clearfield’s leading hitter, but BEA coach Don Lucas was taking no chances with her and called for an intentional walk.
Peters made that move pay off by striking out Olivia Bender and Ressler, both hitting well over .300, and she went on to strike out the side for the second time in the seventh for her impressive complete game.
“We played a great game, they played a great game,” Danver said.
The Lady Bison, who had won four consecutive games for the longest postseason run in school history, finished 14-10, the most wins since the 2006 team posted a 15-6 record.
“They started believing in themselves, and I think they have it in their minds they can beat anybody,” said Danver, who started one sophomore and five freshmen. “It’s definitely something to look forward to, but these girls are gonna have to get back to work in the offseason and through the year to get to this point and get to the state championship one of these years.”
That time is now for the Lady Eagles, who will take a 22-3 record into the Class AAA gold medal game against District 11 champion Pine Grove, which is 27-0 following a four-inning, 17-0 win over Bloomsburg Tuesday.
That can’t be any tougher of a challenge than the Hipps and the Lady Bison provided.
“We’re very fortunate, and we’re happy to be going to Penn State,” Lucas said after heaping more praise on Hipps. “Nobody likes to play the same team three times. In my 35 years, it’s never turned out well.
“We played (Hipps) twice and lit her up for 26 runs, so coming into the game you’re feeling pretty good, except me. I’ve been in this game for so long, baseball, softball, that from game to game it just changes. And she kept getting better, her confidence level expanded.
“We’re a pretty well-hitting team, and she just had our numbers today. We were gonna try to step out on her a little bit to break her rhythm, because she likes to work fast. And she had control of the strike zone. She really did.
”I told him (Danver) the first game of the season, ‘You’ve got a great team.’ I was serious. We’ll be battling him for three years, because we’re young, too.”
Hipps, who amassed a school-record 241 strikeouts in 150 innings during her rookie season, and Peters will be dueling the next two springs and will have to do something really special to top Tuesday’s nail-biter.
CLEARFIELD — 0
Karly Rumsky cf 3020, Morgan Cheek lf 2000, Emma Hipps p 2000, Olivia Bender c 3000, Lauren Ressler 1b 2000, Kyra Mollura ss 3000, Casey English 3b 2000, Alexis Benton rf 3000, Kylee Hertlein 2b 2000. TOTALS: 22 0 2 0.
BALD EAGLE AREA — 1
Makena Baney lf 3000, Mara Hockenberry cf 3110, Maralee Caldana c-dp 2000, Maddie Peters p 3000, Maegan King dp-c 2000, Autumn Tobias 3b 2000, Maddy Perry ss 3011, Kaleigh Kinley 2b 2000, Madison Eckley rf 2000, Lauren Fisher 1b (flex) 0000. 22 1 2 1.
Score by Innings
Clearfield 000 000 0 – 0 2 1
Bald Eagle Area 000 000 1 – 1 2 0
E – Bender. LOB – Clearfield 4; Bald Eagle Area 5. Sac – Cheek; Caldana. SB – Hockenberry, King, Eckley.
Clearfield – Hipps 6-2/3 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 13 K.
Bald Eagle Area – Peters 7 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 16 K.
W – Peters. L – Hipps (13-9).
Umpires – John Palko (plate), Wayne Doyle (first base), Ed Marko (second base) and Mike Gaffney (third base).