After falling in PIAA 1st round, Knoch reflects on special softball season

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Wednesday, June 5, 2019 | 7:28 PM


A young team, a new head coach and more question marks than players, the 2019 Knoch softball team had no idea what was in store this season.

They just hoped to be competitive. And then, it happened.

Trailing big at home to new section foe Ambridge and down to their final three outs, the Knights grew up in a hurry and showed they were a team to be reckoned with for the next two months.

“We were down five runs and coach (Chris) Gardner and I were looking at each other and I said, ‘We’re going to lose our first section game,’” Knoch coach Gary Coe said.

But these Knights were warriors. Sophomore Bailey Rickenbrode drilled a line-drive shot into the gap in left-center field that scored senior Monica Gourley from first base for the walk-off win. The victory began the Knights’ march to history.

“From the beginning, in our first game, when we played Ambridge that was the start of (something special),” senior first baseman Erin Luffy said. “We were down five runs going into the final inning, and we came back and won. I think that helped the underclassmen a little. I think they were a little nervous in that game.”

It was at that moment Coe found out what kind of team he had.

“I walked out and said, ‘You guys are all nuts,’ ” joked Coe. “It’s going to be a fun year, and it was. I looked at coach Gardner and said, ‘Wow.’ I don’t know who was happier the kids or us. I was impressed with them.”

The rest is literally history. Knoch (21-3) went on to lose just once during the regular season — at a tournament in Kentucky to one of the Bluegrass State’s top teams. From there, the Knights rode a 13-game winning streak to a Section 3 title and the No. 1 seed in the WPIAL Class 4A playoffs.

“I’m insanely proud of everyone on this team,” said Luffy, who will play next year at Marywood University near Scranton. “We worked really hard. Just being able to get that far together, I don’t even have words.”

The Knights earned a first-round bye in the playoffs, then defeated Greensburg Salem, 12-2, in the quarterfinals before suffering a crushing 4-0 loss to eventual WPIAL champion Elizabeth Forward in the semifinals.

The one thing all three Knoch defeats had in common is they were shutouts losses. But on the flip side, the Knights outscored opponents 214-67.

“We lost five or six starters from last year,” junior pitcher Amanda Fischer said. “We had mixed feelings about what was going to happen, and the season definitely turned out a lot better than I thought it was going to be.”

But, the season wasn’t over quite yet. The semifinal loss put the Knights in the Class 4A third-place consolation game against Thomas Jefferson. The Knights had plenty to play for. There was history on the line as Knoch had never reached the PIAA postseason.

Backed by another stellar effort from the circle by Fischer and timely hitting, the Knights defeated Thomas Jefferson, 7-2 , to claim their spot in the state bracket.

“Things went well,” Coe said. “The girls jelled and they played good ball, and it was fun to be a part of.”

The fun was short lived as Knoch faced District 10 champion Grove City in the first round of PIAA playoffs. Knoch went up against a hot pitcher who threw a near-perfect game. Once again, it was Rickenbrode who came through with a single to the left field wall in the seventh inning to break up the no-hitter.

The bus ride back to Saxonburg from Slippery Rock following the 4-0 loss was a trip one might expect following a tough season-ending defeat.

“It was a lot of crying, but good crying,” Luffy said. “You could say that it was very reflective.”

Gourley led the team in hits (52), runs scored (26) and batting average (.612). Luffy batted cleanup and led the Knights in home runs (5), RBIs (41) and doubles (11). Fischer finished the season with an 18-3 record and a 1.96 ERA from the circle.

“It’s more than just softball; it’s life lessons,” Coe said. “They never gave up. Thats the kind of stuff you can’t teach.”

William Whalen is a freelance writer.

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