Hempfield softball caps perfect season with state title
UNIVERSITY PARK — Hempfield can stop the comparisons to teams of its decorated past. This is the best one. Period.
"It's pretty hard to debate," longtime coach Bob Kalp said. "First undefeated season? Section title? WPIAL title? PIAA title? If I am forced to answer, I'll be politically correct ... They are, without a doubt, the best 6A team Hempfield has ever had."
Kalp was being more ornery than disingenuous after mighty Hempfield put a perfect ending on a perfect season.
The Spartans became the first team in the state's largest classification to win back-to-back softball championships with a 5-3 victory over Hazleton on Thursday in the PIAA Class 6A title game at Penn State's Nittany Lion Softball Park.
Hempfield added to its seismic mark on state softball by finishing with a perfect 27-0 record.
The Spartans, who won the 4A state title last year, are the first team in program history to complete a season undefeated. The state title is Hempfield's third overall (1999).
The state title is the sixth for a Westmoreland County softball team. Mt. Pleasant won its first title in the 4A game Thursday, while Yough won 3A last year and Valley was 3A champ in 2011.
With unmistakable satisfaction and relief, Hempfield can enjoy its body of work.
"Just going back-to-back is a feat because you lose players and it changes the dynamic of the team," Kalp said. "We were a completely different team last year. We were bunters and scrappers. This year, we had more power, more base hits and more runs.
"I can honestly say, in 27 games, I never asked, 'Where are we in our lineup?' Just so many good hitters."
Senior shortstop Ali Belgiovane went 4 for 4 for the three-time defending WPIAL champions. Winning pitcher and senior Morgan Ryan singled twice and drove in a run, sophomore outfielder Laura Fox doubled with an RBI and senior catcher Madi Stoner singled and drove in a run.
Experience paid off for Hempfield, winners of 41 consecutive games. The Spartans had 13 hits.
"We're used to that big stage, all the fans yelling at us," Belgiovane said. "We kept saying, keep smiling. And we all smiled and enjoyed our last game together. You couldn't ask for more from this team. The 27-0 is a great way to finish; nice closure."
Hazleton surprised Hempfield early when it took a 2-1 lead on a two-out, two-run double by Kyra Antolick.
Hempfield tied it 2-2 in the third inning on a deep double by Laura Fox that scored Belgiovane, who singled.
"One of the reasons I thought we could beat Hazleton was because we have seven seniors in the lineup," Kalp said. "And that trumps what Hazleton had. That's a big plus today."
After Hempfield worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the third, a couple of errant throws by Hazleton allowed Hempfield to take a 3-2 advantage in the fourth. Olivia Persin raced home on an overthrow and an off throw by the catcher.
Two more errors led to another Spartans run in the fifth, and Jenna Osikowicz and Ryan followed with singles. Stoner singled to shallow center, scoring Osikowicz to make it 5-2.
Ryan was comfortable with the three-run lead and her defense. The program's all-time wins leader, Ryan finished 73-6 for her career.
"There have been so many great teams that have competed in this tournament," Ryan said. "To go back-to-back really shows all the work we've put in. To go down in the history books, not only at Hempfield but also at the state level, is incredible for every girl on this team."
Ryan (22-0), a Notre Dame recruit, struck out eight.
Hazleton made it interesting with two outs in the seventh, putting two runners on and freshman Tiana Treon driving in a run to make it 5-3.
"Things were just going their way today and not ours," Hazleton coach Heather Dale said. "Our girls had a chance; everyone cracks under pressure."
Hazleton's brief rush of confidence was silenced when Ryan got Hope Kinney to ground out to end it.
"We got together and coach Kalp told us to stay calm," Ryan said. "We were on the verge of winning it all, and we didn't need to worry. We just needed to take a deep breath and get one more out."
Hempfield scored the game's first run on an RBI double by Ryan in the first inning. Hempfield appeared to score another run in the first but Hazleton shortstop Marissa Trivelpiece collided with leadoff hitter Belgiovane, who was called for interference and did not score.