Hempfield rallies for walk-off win over No. 1 Seneca Valley

Wednesday, April 12, 2023 | 8:39 PM

Early miscues, a nagging struggle to bunt runners over and a pile of strikeouts were an unsavory combination for Hempfield.

Seneca Valley pitcher Lexie Hames and the top-ranked Raiders seemed to be in command and had the No. 3 Spartans right where they wanted them — with a two-run lead.

But forget the uncharacteristic. Winning is a characteristic Hempfield knows all too well.

Hempfield weathered the storm with a wealth of patience — or, as Maggie Howard put it, “We shook them like thunder” — and rallied to stun the visiting Raiders in walk-off fashion.

Howard doubled with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, then raced home with the winning run on a wild pitch, as Hempfield won 3-2 on Wednesday in a bout of 6A heavyweights at Robert D. Kalp Field.

“We had some nerves in the beginning, but we calmed down and trusted one another,” said Howard, a junior who is committed to Georgetown. “In a game like that, everything counts. This really boosts our confidence.”

The overpowering-at-times Hames, who struck out 12 and now has 98 Ks for the season, finally gave the Spartans a break in the seventh.

Howard’s two-base hit was followed by an intentional walk to freshman Lauren Howard, her sister. A wild pitch moved both runners up, with Maggie Howard moving to third.

“We were cool and relaxed and trusted our abilities,” Howard said.

With junior Peyton Heisler up, Hames skipped a 3-1 pitch in the dirt and Maggie Howard raced home to give Hempfield (8-1, 5-1) its sixth straight win.

“That felt like a WPIAL championship game,” Hempfield coach Tina Madison said, her Spartans logo earrings dangling as she shook her head.

Seneca Valley (6-1, 5-1), which had a 15-game winning streak against WPIAL teams stopped, only had allowed two runs coming in against Hempfield.

“When Maggie got to third, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my, passed ball and it’s over,’ ” Madison said. “I am super happy for the girls. This is a turning point for us. We had to win this game to have a chance at the section (title). We knew it would come down to the wire.”

Seneca Valley, the defending WPIAL champion, beat Hempfield in last year’s semifinals 7-2. But Hempfield sophomore pitcher (then freshman) Riley Miller did not play in that game because of a foot injury.

She made the long-awaited start this time and held her own against Hames, who came in 6-0 with a 0.38 ERA. She walked four and gave up five hits, throwing 65-plus mph.

“I was super excited to play this game,” Miller said. “I think I was more nervous than I have ever been. I feel like I settled down after the first pitch.”

Miller struck out 10, walked two and limited the Raiders to four singles.

“Everyone talks about Hames and her strikeouts, and she is tremendous, but how about Riley?” Madison said. “Everyone has been asking me, how is Riley going to beat Lexie? How about, how is Lexie going to beat Riley? She was outstanding. She puts the ball on a needle.”

Hempfield finally infiltrated Hames with a run-scoring, two-out single by sophomore catcher Alli Cervola, scoring junior courtesy runner Allison Fox to cut the lead to 2-1 in the fourth.

Junior Emily Griffith singled off the third-base bag to open the Hempfield fifth.

Freshman courtesy runner Raegan Reamer moved to second on a passed ball and went to third on a sacrifice bunt.

Maggie Howard grounded to third, and the throw came home. But the ball came out of junior Anna Kalkowski’s glove, and Reamer scored to tie it 2-2.

“We knew we had to limit mistakes,” Madison said. “We weren’t going to stack runs. It was all about getting the ball in play. My goal was just to get them into scoring position.”

Hames threw 117 pitches one day after she carded 115 against Mt. Lebanon.

With the way she pitches, Seneca Valley wants more 1-2-3 innings.

Instead, it let Hempfield hang around.

“We couldn’t get bunts down, and we had some errors in the field,” Raiders coach Malesse Hames said. “Coach Tina and I talked about the team with less mistakes winning. When we don’t make plays, that leads to extra pitches. The bottom line is we didn’t execute today.”

Seneca Valley scored twice in the fourth, when Hempfield made two errors.

Kalkowski singled to right, and freshman Neve Miller went from first to third on a throwing error.

With the infield playing up, sophomore Bella Gross ripped a single to left center to make it 1-0.

Senior Mia Ryan followed with a sacrifice fly for a 2-0 advantage.

Hempfield had runners at second and third in the first, but Hames struck out three straight batters to squash the threat.

Seneca Valley junior Kara Pasquale made a running catch to rob Griffith of extra bases to open the seventh.

“I thought that one was gone,” Madison said. “If she doesn’t make that catch, it might have been different. We’re just glad we won, no matter how we did it.”

Gross and Lauren Howard each had two hits.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.

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