Hempfield puts foot down, rallies past Norwin into Class 6A WPIAL finals

Wednesday, May 24, 2023 | 8:18 PM

When Hempfield fell behind by four runs early under the weight of three Norwin home runs, pitcher Riley Miller had a short but succinct talk with her catcher, Ella Berkebile.

She had that look in her eye. Enough was enough.

“I told her, ‘Those are the last runs they’re getting,’” said Miller, teeming with a combination of remorse and retaliation. “That was it.”

The early deficit seemed to bring out the best in second-seeded Hempfield and its sophomore pitcher.

Miller stymied Norwin after the second inning, and the Spartans rallied for an 8-5 victory over No. 3 Norwin in a WPIAL Class 6A softball semifinal Wednesday at Gateway.

“Riley’s body language was heading south. You could see it,” Hempfield coach Tina Madison said. “You don’t know how easy it is, as a pitcher, to fold when it’s 5-1. But she didn’t. You could feel the momentum change. Riley picked up and felt the team behind her.”

Perennial power Hempfield (17-3) advances to its first WPIAL final since 2019, the year it won its seventh WPIAL title and the last for longtime coach Bob Kalp.

The Spartans, who also knocked out Norwin (14-6) in last year’s quarterfinals and beat the Knights twice this season, will face No. 1 Seneca Valley (17-1) next week at Cal (Pa.).

Miller, who struck out 13 and walked one, set down 11 straight after the second inning. She allowed six hits.

Only senior Emma Novotnak managed an infield single after the second.

“We don’t give up too many runs,” Madison said. “It’s a big rivalry when we play Norwin because they’re such good games. Home runs, that’s how Norwin scores. That’s to be expected. We just shifted the energy, and the game turned over.”

Norwin’s season ends abruptly because only the WPIAL champion makes the PIAA tournament.

One of the top-hitting teams in 6A could not be the first from Norwin to reach the finals.

“This game is all about adjustments,” Norwin coach Brian Mesich said. “When we needed to, we didn’t make adjustments. We came out with the home runs, hey, hey, hey. Then, we kind of hit a lull.”

What looked like a stronghold early became a roadblock for Norwin, which led 5-1 after a pair of first-inning home runs from seniors Madie Kessler and Alyssa McCormick — Kessler’s a two-run blast to right center.

A bases-loaded walk by McCormick got Hempfield on the board in the first, but junior Bailey Snowberger clubbed another two-run shot to center in the second for a four-run lead.

One swing of the bat, though, charged up Hempfield’s offense, and the game took a hairpin turn.

With a large lead, Mesich indicated Norwin might have turned its back on a bear.

“You have to keep scoring,” he said.

What appeared to be rust from a quarterfinal bye simply turned out to be Hempfield waiting to strike.

With two outs and two on in the bottom of the second, junior Peyton Heisler answered with a line-drive homer to center to close the gap to 5-4.

“It felt like that popped the bubble on Norwin,” said Heisler, who added a fourth RBI later when she was walked with the bases loaded. “Things kind of stopped for them and picked up for us.”

Miller set down the Knights in order in the third, and the Spartans proceeded to tie it in the bottom of the frame.

Berkebile, a freshman who has found a key role in the lineup, lined a shot off of junior third baseman Josey Michalski, knocking in a run to make it 5-5. Junior Emily Griffith tripled to open the rally.

Another 1-2-3 inning followed, and Hempfield kept the momentum on its side. Freshman Claire Mitchell, just moved to the top of the order as part of several lineup tweaks by Madison, led off with a triple.

Freshman Lauren Howard followed with an infield single before a wild pitch with Heisler up gave the Spartans a 6-5 lead.

Berkebile came through again in the fifth, knocking in Sarah Podkul, who doubled.

After a single by Miller and a double steal, McCormick walked the bases full again, and her free pass to Heisler made it 8-5.

While she allowed a baserunner in the sixth, Miller struck out the side in the seventh to send Hempfield to the finals.

“Riley showed what kind of pitcher she is,” Madison said. “She gave up three home runs and stayed composed. Not very many pitchers can do that.”

Podkul, Berkebile and Miller each had two hits for Hempfield.

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

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