Connellsville jumps on Plum early in Class 5A 1st-round win

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Monday, May 13, 2024 | 9:41 PM


Gateway High School’s softball field isn’t the most popular place for Plum.

The Mustangs have seen their season end on that field three of the past four years.

Two years ago in the WPIAL Class 5A first round, Fox Chapel blanked Plum.

Last year, Thomas Jefferson rallied from three runs down in the bottom of the seventh to claim a two-run victory in a first-round matchup.

And on Monday, No. 8 Connellsville erupted for six runs in the top of the first inning and added three more in the fourth en route to eliminating the No. 9 Mustangs, 9-4.

“That field is cursed for us,” Plum coach Phil DiLonardo said as a slight chuckle mingled with the disappointment etched on his face. “There’s something about it. We just didn’t come out and play in the first inning. That killed us. That was the ballgame, basically. We fought back, but that was too big of a hole to dig out of, unfortunately.”

Plum, which finished third in Section 1 behind North Hills and Shaler, capped its season at 11-7 overall.

On the flip side, the Falcons, the co-champions of Section 4 with Trinity, improved to 13-7 and advanced to Wednesday’s quarterfinals where they will face No. 1 Armstrong at a site and time to be determined.

Armstrong punched its ticket to the quarterfinals with a 9-5 win over No. 16 Western Beaver.

Connellsville on Monday started three seniors, a junior and five freshmen.

“We’re moving on,” Connellsville coach John Burd said. “That’s the thing right now. It’s one game at a time. The five freshmen, they were able to get any jitters out of their systems. Now they know what the playoff atmosphere is like.”

Seven of Connellsville’s first eight batters collected hits in the bottom of the first. Senior catcher Tagan Basinger and freshman first baseman Molly Greenawalt each drove in a pair of runs, and two Plum errors brought home the other two Falcons runs.

Plum starter Riley Stephans was pulled from the pitching circle after the eighth batter. Sophomore Mackenzie Marotta came on and got the final two hitters in the first before retiring six of eight over the second and third innings and the leadoff batter in the bottom of the fourth.

“That first inning relaxed the girls, and it also fired them up,” Burd said. “Before the game, they’re a different group, and sometimes I can’t tell what their mood is, but that first inning really got them pumped up and energized. It was great to see that.”

Marotta finished with six hits surrendered while issuing one walk over the final 623 innings.

“We made a couple mistakes where if we avoid that, maybe they don’t score six runs,” DiLonardo said. “I felt bad for Riley, but I felt it was time there to switch it up to see what Mackenzie could do, and she did a good job.”

Connellsville, which finished the game with 13 hits, extended its lead to 9-0 in the bottom of the fourth on a two-run homer from senior Kirra Davis and a solo shot from freshman Cali Leichliter.

“Those runs were huge for us,” Burd said. “Those girls like to hit home runs. They compete in practice to see who can hit the most.”

Plum responded and got on the board in the top of the fifth as sophomore shortstop Jaiden Gentile singled with one out, and sophomore second baseman Liana Yusko reached on a fielder’s choice.

Junior shortstop Dani Pici then crushed an Iris Burd offering over the center-field fence to plate three runs.

The Mustangs added one more in the top of the sixth as sophomore left fielder Gia Tavella doubled with one out and came home on a single from junior center fielder Bella Tavella.

Plum collected nine hits off of Burd, who struck out 10 and walked two in the complete-game victory.

Stephans reached base three times with a walk and a pair of singles. The Tavellas each finished 2 for 3. Plum left the bases loaded in the top of the second and stranded two runners in the sixth.

A positive for Plum coming out of Monday’s game and the 2023 season is that only one player — senior first baseman Madelyn Wagner — is lost from the starting lineup.

“It is a young team, and they showed fight,” DiLonardo said. “Down 6-0, they could’ve given up. They could’ve quit. But they didn’t.”

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.

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