Hempfield edges rival Latrobe to win 4th straight WPIAL title in 10 innings

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018 | 8:48 PM


Way back in the preseason, when softballs were ricocheting off bleachers inside a dimly lit gymnasium and light snow fell outside Hempfield Area High School, coach Bob Kalp sat on an upside-down bucket and essentially, in not as many words, told his team they weren't the WPIAL favorites anymore.

Hempfield? Underdogs?

It felt awkward for the longtime coach to make that kind of assessment to his wide-eyed group. But Kalp knew this was a different group, one that had to carve out its own path to glory.

He also knew that while the perception of his team might have changed on the outside, the drive of the program within did not.

And as it turns out, Hempfield is still Hempfield.

“We lost some key girls, had a young team,” Kalp said. “But we had the potential to be pretty good. We weren't going to go 0-22.”

Even after earning the No. 1 seed in the WPIAL Class 6A playoffs for the fourth straight time, this Hempfield team still felt the need to prove itself. And the Spartans did that Wednesday evening by winning their fourth straight district championship with a dramatic, 2-1 win over rival Latrobe in 10 innings at Seton Hill University.

Hempfield beat Latrobe last year in the title game at Cal (Pa.), 13-2. The Spartans, who went on to win a PIAA title, finished 27-0 to cap one of the WPIAL's all-time great seasons.

“We have an advantage because of success of the past,” Kalp said. “The kids buy into what we do, and as long as we have life there's still a chance that we could win. And they buy into that, and therefore they don't give anything away, no matter what the circumstances are.”

Jessica Persin singled home Allison Podkul with no outs in the bottom of the 10th to give Hempfield the walk-off victory and its fourth consecutive WPIAL championship.

Hempfield (20-3) tied the Class 6A title game in the bottom of the ninth on a sacrifice fly by Ashley Orischak, finally giving the Spartans a run against Latrobe ace pitcher Kiley Myers.

Locked in a pitchers' duel with Hempfield's Maddie Uschock, Marist recruit Myers struck out 11 and appeared headed for a 1-0 win until Kelsey Tobin and Emma Hoffner delivered back-to-back singles to set up the tying score for the Spartans.

“You can't go up there and flail away,” Kalp said of facing Myers, who struck out 15 Hempfield hitters earlier this season in a 1-0 Latrobe win. “The whole game I was trying to manufacture a run in any way, shape or form. I thought one run would win it when we go into the middle innings, just couldn't push one across.”

Latrobe (12-4) took a 1-0 lead in the top of the ninth on an RBI double by Becca Tatone off of Uschock, a Dominican recruit who fanned five, walked two and was backed by a defense that did not make an error.

Latrobe had a runner at third in the top of the 10th but a squeeze play went awry and Hoffner, the catcher, chased Jordan Novak, who started down the baseline, back to third and applied a diving tag for a key out.

Karley Kovatch scored on Tatone's hit, which rode a wind gust into the left-field corner, after reaching on a bunt single.

“We knew we could be in this game and win this game,” Latrobe coach Kozusko said. “Last year, we had a 2-0 lead to start that game, and we made some mistakes. This time we played a much cleaner game but didn't get to finish it.”

Podkul started the 10th at second base as part of the International Tiebreaker Rule. Myers was called for an illegal pitch to move Podkul to third.

“She started her motion and stopped so it was the right call,” Kozusko said.

Persin then stepped in and lofted a soft single to center to give the Spartans the win.

“We knew we had to be relaxed and play,” Persin said. “As soon as you see strikes you need to choke and poke at it. You need to get the ball in play. If you do that, things can happen. I had to stay calm.”

Hoffner, a freshman already committed to St. Francis (Pa.), went 3 for 4 in the win.

Uschock was steady throughout and seemed to get stronger as the game wore on.

“When you're playing 10-inning games, and it comes down to little things, just being fundamentally sound, and it comes down to every single pitch; intense focus, I think that's more fun,” Uschock said. “That's what the game's about. It got everyone's spirits up.”

Hempfield has six WPIAL titles overall and will now attempt to win three consecutive PIAA championships. The state tournament opens Monday.

Latrobe, which split with Hempfield during Section 2-6A play this season, ending the Spartans' 41-game section winning streak, was seeking its first WPIAL title since 2011.

“We felt like we had something to prove,” Uschock said. “Nobody thought we would be good anymore. We've worked so hard to get here.”

Hempfield is the first team since Sto-Rox in 2003 to win four straight softball titles.

Sto-Rox won five in a row in Class A from 2000-04.

Baldwin won four Class AAA titles in a row from 1993-96 and nine total in a 12-year span. And Swissvale took home four consecutive Class AA titles from 1979-82.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BillBeckner.

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