Perfect ending in Hempfield softball team's grasp
As softballs skittered across the hardwood and banged off bleachers in a stuffy auxiliary gymnasium in the winter, Hempfield prepared for a new season of vast potential and reward.
Veteran coach Bob Kalp knew what he had. He knew he could be a witness to this team's wonders, but he approached with caution.
He even admonished his players for getting too far ahead of themselves. But now, as the Spartans (26-0) sit a win away from back-to-back PIAA championships, the coach can only sit back and marvel.
“They were talking that stuff in conditioning in January but I told them they were celebrating last year's success,” Kalp said. “Put that stuff away. They said, ‘No coach, we're a different team, our own team, and we're going to get it done.”
So as Hempfield takes aim at another state title, its crazy glue grip still on the trophy, the players want more. Last year's group went 25-2 in 4A and Kalp called it the best team in program history — quite an honor for a team used to raising banners and playing past graduation.
But this Hempfield team already has more wins than any in school history. And none have finished a season undefeated.
Kalp, a coach for 27 years, is a historian of his program. He knows every chapter and verse of all of his teams. He remembers the hits, the double plays and of course, the errors — as few of them as there may be. To be considered the best, you have to impress the ultimate perfectionist.
This team has.
“We have to win one game, that's all that counts; nothing in the past matters,” Kalp said. “If they win that one game, we might have to push aside someone who is up on the mantle.”
Hempfield is not taking this gold-plated opportunity for granted. Getting this far takes away some stress, but there is a job to be finished as the Spartans get set to face District 2 champion Hazleton (22-3) in the Class 6A final at 4 p.m. Thursday at Penn State's Nittany Lion Softball Park.
“As the defending champs, there's a lot of pressure and everyone wants a piece of you,” senior pitcher Morgan Ryan said. “There is a sense of relief getting back (to the finals), but now our goal is one more game. If we play like we can, we'll come home with another championship.”
Hempfield has won 40 consecutive games dating to last season.
Hazleton advanced to the state finals for the first time in its 25-year history with an 8-5 win over Spring-Ford in the semifinals. The Cougars had 11 hits and eight starters had at least one hit.
Sounds like Hempfield's semifinal win over Chambersburg. Behind 14 hits, the Spartans downed the Trojans, 11-4. Hempfield pounded the ball against Latrobe, too, in a 13-2 win in the WPIAL championship to secure its third straight title.
“We talk to each other about at-bats and what we see from pitchers,” Ryan said. “We help each other out. We have confidence in each other.”
Ryan, the Gatorade Pennsylvania Player of the Year, is 21-0 with a 0.95 ERA and 191 strikeouts and is hitting a team-best .443 and 36 RBIs.
Hempfield won all four state playoff games last season via shutout but has allowed some offense during this run. But that has not bothered a team that hits back.
“We have been working for this since we were freshmen; you have to push each other and want to work hard,” Ryan said. “Being 26-0 speaks to the hard work everyone has put in. We value defense and put a lot of extra time into it each day.”
Hempfield's steady defense, which has 22 errors in 26 games, turned two double plays in the semifinals.
Hempfield has seven college-bound seniors in the starting lineup: Ryan (Notre Dame), second baseman Jenna Osikowicz (Seton Hill), catcher Madi Stoner (Hillsdale), shortstop Ali Belgiovane (Pitt-Johnstown), outfielder Jordan Bernard (Wheeling Jesuit), first baseman Stacey Walling (Pitt-Johnstown) and outfielder Autumn Beasley (Shenandoah).
Hazleton is a strong-hitting group led by senior first baseman Megan Trivelpiece, who is hitting .417 with 35 RBIs. Of her 35 hits, 17 have gone for extra bases. Freshman shortstop Marissa Trivelpiece has a .403 average and 24 RBIs, and senior catcher Hope Kinney — a Morgan State recruit — bats .427 with 24 RBIs, the same total for freshman third baseman Tiana Treon.
Junior pitcher Erika Book is 22-3 with a 2.14 ERA but has just 62 strikeouts.
Watch for the long ball: the teams have a combined 38 home runs. Hempfield has 23.