Hempfield blanks McDowell, reaches PIAA semifinals for 5th straight season

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Thursday, June 6, 2019 | 5:53 PM


The home plate umpire might have forced Hempfield pitcher Callie Sowers to give up her good luck charm, but the Spartans were reluctant to throw in the towel.

Sowers couldn’t keep her lucky gold cloth in her back pocket like she has done all season because the ump said it was not a team color. “Blue” thought the towel should be, well, blue.

The slight distraction did not deter Sowers, or her teammates, who had reason to twirl towels, high-five and hug — whatever — after a 2-0 victory over District 10 champion McDowell in the PIAA Class 6A quarterfinals Thursday afternoon at North Allegheny.

“I was kind of upset (about the towel),” said Sowers, a sophomore who switched to a blue one in the second inning. “It’s OK. I struck out (the batter after time was called), so it didn’t bother me.”

Not much seems to bother the Spartans (18-6), who continued their march toward a fourth straight state championship as Sowers and an impermeable defense, led by sophomore catcher Emma Hoffner, held a potent McDowell (18-6) lineup in check to reach the semifinals for the fifth consecutive season.

Hempfield will play District 3 champ Central Dauphin (23-2) on Monday at a time and site to be decided. The winner goes to the PIAA finals next Thursday at Penn State.

McDowell was seeking its first trip to the state semis.

After back-to-back mercy-rule wins against North Allegheny and Chambersburg, Hempfield expected a more rigid challenge from the Trojans.

“That is a nice team,” Hempfield coach Bob Kalp said. “We got a couple base hits and found one with a couple on. That was it. We kind of figured that on the way up. We knew it would be a tight game, and I like that. Our teams are built for that kind of game. We thrive in that situation where if it’s a high-scoring game we’re probably going to be in trouble.

“Today’s game was the kind we like.”

The teams traded doubles — Olivia Persin for Hempfield in the second, Rachel Marsden for the Trojans in the fourth — but failed to chase a run home.

Hempfield, winner of five straight WPIAL titles, finally cracked a scoreless tie with a timely hit — and an error — in the top of the sixth to produce the only scoring.

Senior Laura Fox singled, and Hoffner singled to left. Junior Ashley Orischak came up with two outs and stretched the count to 3-2 against Trojans senior ace Marsden.

Orischak then ripped a line shot to right for a single to score Fox. When right fielder Olivia Kruszewski misplayed the ball, Hoffner scored for a 2-0 lead.

“The first time we went through (the batting order) on her, we were just grounding out a lot,” Orischak said of Marsden. “It took a little bit of settling down to get it.”

Orishak made it to third but could not come around. Neither could the Trojans the rest of the way as the Spartans preserved the win. One key reason was a sensational double play by Hoffner to shut down McDowell in the sixth.

Hoffner, who picked off a would-be base stealer an inning earlier by running her down between first and second, reacted quickly with a bang-bang play. With a runner at first, Kruszewski bunted a Sowers pitch straight up. Hoffner snagged the short pop-up, and, before the ball had settled into her mitt, she fired to first to end the inning.

“We needed something really big in that situation, and that happened to be what it was,” Hoffner said. “We knew we had to match their energy.”

Hempfield has turned a double play in three straight playoff games.

“It never gets old seeing those good plays,” Orischak said of Hoffner, a Division I prospect. “I’m proud of her. It’s great to see.”

Sowers said: “I would not want any other catcher than (Hoffner). I am thankful to have her.”

Sowers struck out five and did not walk a batter. Marsden also did not issue a walk and allowed just four hits.

Despite a 13-3, six-inning win over Chambersburg, Kalp was not altogether happy with his team’s defensive effort in the first round.

“Today we made some nice defensive plays,” Kalp said, “after a not-so-good effort over at Seton Hill. “We work tirelessly with the defense, sometimes to a fault. I think maybe I drive them too much with the defensive stuff. We go at it every day, routine stuff, over and over.”

But it pays off, time and again.

Kira Hillhouse singled for McDowell to open the seventh, but Sowers induced a groundout by Faith Renwick, which senior Hanna Pavsek handled for the final putout.

Orischak echoed her teammates’ sentiment that attention to detail is the force that drives the Spartans.

“We work every day,” Orischak said. “It’s due to a lot of work and preparation by not only the players but the coaches.”

Hempfield also beat McDowell in the state quarterfinals in 2016 and ’17, the latter on the way to its 27-0 season, behind star pitcher Morgan Ryan. Marsden pitched in both games.

“We expected that type of game,” McDowell coach Maureen Wolfe said of Thursday’s tight score. “But with the way we’ve been hitting the ball, to not be able to manufacture a run … I’m a little surprised they shut us out. We’ve been good at execution, but today we were sub-par. I’m proud of the way we fought.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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