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Feeling a little blue: Leechburg falls short in WPIAL title game

| Friday, May 30, 2003

CALIFORNIA: Leechburg right fielder Melissa Geer dived and made an outstanding catch. Then, she hesitated before throwing the ball to the infield as the eventual winning run tagged up and raced across home plate.

The play was the game in a nutshell. The Lady Blue Devils gave a gutsy effort, but Sto-Rox kept up the pressure the entire game.

Leechburg came up short, 2-1, in the WPIAL Class A softball title game Thursday at California University of Pennsylvania's Lilly Field.

The Lady Blue Devils were going after their first championship since 1995.

Sto-Rox made history by becoming just the third team to win four consecutive WPIAL titles.

"What it really boiled down to was playoff experience," Leechburg coach Jim Oberdorf said. "They pulled it off the last game, and they did it again. There's no substitute for experience."

Sto-Rox won its semifinal game with a rally in the seventh inning. The Sto-Rox seniors have never finished a WPIAL season without the title.

"Our kids are experienced, and they answered the call again," Sto-Rox head coach Bill Palermo said. "I don't think they thought they would lose at any point in the game. I might have been worried, but they weren't."

Leechburg slipped to 17-2, while Sto-Rox improved to 17-5. Both teams have qualified for the PIAA Class A playoffs, which start Monday.

Sto-Rox scored the winning run in the top of the seventh inning. With one out and the bases loaded, Michelle Kushner lofted a fly ball to right field. Geer rushed in and to her left, dived and caught the ball about five feet from the foul line. Sto-Rox's Anna Trapuzzano tagged up for the winning run.

After the game, Geer, a junior, displayed courage and maturity by admitting she thought her catch was the third out.

"I wasn't paying attention," Geer said. "I feel like this was my fault."

That was hardly the case, as Geer played solid defense throughout the entire game. In the fourth inning, Geer even gunned down a runner trying to reach first base. And that's not to mention Geer, the team's cleanup hitter, was a big reason Leechburg was in the final.

The loss was tough on a number of fronts, including the fact the winning run scored on a great defensive play. It also was frustrating because Leechburg led 1-0 for three innings, and the contest was standout senior pitcher Jen Kulick's last shot at a WPIAL title.

"In my 23 years of coaching, this was the toughest loss I have ever had," Oberdorf said. "Sto-Rox did exactly what we knew they were going to do and got away with it. Their whole thing is drive the ball, to make contact. And it worked. The whole game they put pressure on you and put pressure on you."

The championship game featured a surprisingly high number of base hits, considering the caliber of pitching. Sto-Rox outhit Leechburg, 9-5. All of the hits were singles.

Leechburg took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning. With two outs and pinch-runner Allison Shepler at first base, Geer earned a walk. Sophomore Emily Sprankle followed with a single into centerfield. The center fielder bobbled the ball after trying a quick scoop. Her throw bounced in front of and then off the catcher, as Shepler slid across home plate. The ball got away from the catcher and rolled to the backstop, allowing Sprankle to reach third. However, a ground out ended the inning.

Sto-Rox tied the game in the top of the fourth inning. Sto-Rox pieced together three singles and had the bases loaded with two outs for Trapuzzano. But Kulick allowed her first walk of the playoffs, and that pushed home the tying run. Kulick walked the batter on four pitches, but she didn't agree with the calls. She retaliated with a strikeout to end the inning.

"I know more than anything I did not walk that girl," said Kulick, who is headed to Gannon University. "There were two perfect pitches. But that gave me energy and fired me up."

McGee, her catcher, didn't agree with the calls, either.

"She was pitching the same as she had the whole game," McGee said.

Leechburg had an opportunity to break the 1-all tie in the bottom of the sixth inning. Kulick singled, Sprankle singled and freshman Maggie Jones reached first base when her ground ball went through the second baseman's legs.

With two outs, senior Kellie Thomas came to the plate. But Sto-Rox pitcher Stephanie Elk was able to get the strikeout with a good pitch.

In the bottom of the seventh, Leechburg went down 1-2-3. However, leadoff hitter and junior Amie Klingensmith was thrown out at first base on a bang-bang play.

Oberdorf was proud of his players for the gutsy effort they gave in trying to knock off the reigning champion.

"They did a great job, all of them," Oberdorf said. "And we have a good nucleus coming back next year."

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