A-K Valley baseball, softball teams coping with abrupt end to playoffs

Saturday, June 2, 2018 | 11:20 PM

Freeport's end-of-season softball meeting Thursday coincided with the WPIAL Class 4A softball championship game at Seton Hill.

And when the Yellowjackets learned of the result — Southmoreland's 12-1, five-inning rout of top-seeded South Park — they shared a similar reaction.

“Everyone looked around and said, ‘You know, that could have been us,' ” Freeport coach Sam Ross said.

It wasn't, though. The Yellowjackets lost in the WPIAL semifinals to Southmoreland seven days earlier and then to Avonworth in the WPIAL consolation game Tuesday, seeing a breakout season end one victory short of a PIAA tournament appearance.

Likewise, Leechburg's last-gasp comeback in the WPIAL Class A consolation game against Union went for naught; the Blue Devils cut an eight-run deficit to one, but their momentum and their season ended there.

“I'm glad they came back because I would have been a little more disappointed (otherwise),” Leechburg coach Debbie Young said. “That's all you can ask for.”

For the first time in more than two decades, the Alle-Kiski Valley baseball/softball season ended before the PIAA playoffs began. The last time no local team qualified for the state tournament, 1997, the state had just two classifications. There are six now.

Several factors contributed to the shutout: a slower-than-normal start to the regular season because of wintry weather in the early spring, down years from perennial powerhouses — Deer Lakes fell in the WPIAL softball first round after making the PIAA tournament five of the previous six years — and plenty of postseason heartbreak.

It began almost immediately and happened in many varieties. Fox Chapel baseball lost its first-round game on a walk-off walk, and Deer Lakes and Leechburg fell in pitchers' duels. Fox Chapel softball went down in a slugfest. Burrell and Plum baseball dropped walk-off games in the quarterfinals. Kiski Area softball's upset bid against Albert Gallatin in the quarterfinals came up one run short.

All told, 12 of the A-K Valley's 17 playoff qualifiers lost by three runs or fewer in their elimination games, including seven decided by a run.

“The finality of losing's always rough,” Burrell baseball coach Mark Spohn said. “You're gonna lose, more or less, unless you win a championship, but it's always tough. I thought the season went well. We had a pretty good team, and the kids played hard. I just think we're more equipped to play better teams the past few years.”

Four teams lost to eventual champions. Valley, which dropped a one-run decision to Class 3A champion Brownsville in the quarterfinals, had a similar “could have been us” reaction as Freeport softball.

“They all came up to me and said, ‘Coach, that could have been us,' ” Vikings coach Jim Basilone said. “I said, yeah, I've always told you guys that you were the best and could win the WPIAL, and I believed it. I wasn't just saying that. I meant that. In the future, let's bank that memory and move forward.”

Although the season ended without a champion or state playoff qualifier, several teams are taking the positive steps they made this year and moving forward.

Leechburg baseball's early results included an ignominious 32-2 loss to Vincentian — “It had nowhere to go but up,” coach Bob Oberdorf said — but the Blue Devils rallied in a difficult section to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

In a first-round game against defending Class A champion Jeannette, Leechburg came out on the short end of a 2-0 final score in what Oberdorf called the team's best performance of the season.

“I think maybe (the improvement) was just an attitude change,” he said. “I think they were so accustomed to losing the last few years, and we tried to get them to be competitive from the first pitch on. We may not win every game, but let's get into the game, do our best and see what happens.”

Freeport softball and Valley baseball had bigger breakthroughs. The Yellowjackets went through the regular season undefeated, won their first section title since 2000 and advanced to the WPIAL semifinals for the first time in a quarter century. Valley baseball shared the section title with Burrell, the Vikings' first since 2004, then won a playoff game for the first time since 1970.

“We had five seniors that were leaders and brought the freshmen along and took them under their wing and showed them the way,” Basilone said. “These freshmen have grown up, and I think they're ready to contribute again next year and compete and get it done again. Now that we've been there and had a taste of success, they don't want it to end.”

Ross said Freeport was “catching our breath” after a long season, but soon travel ball will get into full swing and then comes fall ball when school gets back into session.

All local playoff qualifiers will have roster vacancies and up-and-coming underclassmen ready to fill them. And while teams didn't get the ultimate goal in 2018, “wait till next year” remains a popular rallying cry.

“I always tell them, try to improve every year,” Ross said. “No matter how good you are this year, you've got to improve next year.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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