Mt. Pleasant seeks to regain focus in time for PIAA semifinal against Punxsutawney

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Sunday, June 13, 2021 | 6:08 PM


The best softball teams usually are the most self-critical at this time of year.

The way aluminum-pinging Mt. Pleasant has been playing, a slightly off-kilter day can raise some concerns and make coaches and players reevaluate some things.

That is what occurred Friday when Mt. Pleasant (19-3) won its PIAA Class 3A quarterfinal against Avonworth, 3-0, to advance to the semifinals for the fourth straight season.

The WPIAL champion Vikings take on Punxsutawney at 1 p.m. Monday at St. Francis (Pa.) for a shot at the state finals. But Mt. Pleasant didn’t hit like it usually does when it came back Friday to finish the suspended quarterfinal against Avonworth, and the Vikings don’t want that stale feeling to follow them to Loretto.

Junior Katie Hutter had the team’s only hit – a bunt single – a day after the Vikings ripped three doubles and two triples against the Antelopes.

The game was split over two days because of inclement weather and played at two sites: Norwin and Fox Chapel.

“Their pitcher was so much better (the second day), and we didn’t make adjustments,” Vikings coach Chris Brunson said. “We were not good enough offensively. We didn’t hit like we can and our baserunning was not good.”

Brunson took the blame for his daughter, Haylie, getting called out Thursday when she tried to stretch a double into a triple.

On Friday, the Vikings were doubled up with two runners on in the sixth inning. Haylie Brunson flew out and Chris Brunson had both players tag up, but junior Abby Swank was tagged out on an 8-to-5 putout.

“We need to be better, even the coach,” Chris Brunson said.

While it sometimes only takes one run to win in the state playoffs, the Vikings want to showcase their heavy hitters in the biggest games — especially against amped-up pitching.

“We have to stick together as a team and not as individuals,” senior shortstop Hannah Gnibus said. “We need to be more patient with our hitting and play like we can.”

Remember, this is the same lineup that produced 12 extra-base hits in a 15-0 dismantling of Ellwood City in the WPIAL championship, including 10 doubles.

Having pitching and defense outperform hitting is not something the team envisioned happening, but it has made for a winning formula in the playoffs.

“We definitely could have been better offensively,” said senior pitcher Mary Smithnosky, who has thrown five shutouts in the postseason and has not allowed a run in 33 consecutive innings. “I take some of the blame for that because I wasn’t on my A-game offensively.”

Smithnosky is headed to Western Michigan but not as a pitcher. She will be an outfielder for the Broncos.

Said Chris Brunson: “I can’t say enough about Mary and (catcher) Lexis (Shawley) and how good they have been.”

The semifnal or “West final” is often the toughest hurdle to clear. Mt. Pleasant lost in the semis in 2019 and ’18, the latter 3-1 to Punxsutawney when Lauren (Shaheen) Armanious was the coach of the Vikings. She guided them to their lone PIAA title in ’17.

“Eventually, we’re going to give up some runs,” Chris Brunson said. “It’s about how we handle that adversity. I think we have the tools in the toolbox to do that.”

Punxsutawney, the District 9 champion, also is a productive hitting team that hides some behind its 11-10 record.

“I warned the girls about their record,” Brunson said. “They made the state finals a couple years ago. They have a proud tradition. If we’re not careful … we’ll be going home Monday.”

The end of a school year collides squarely with state playoff runs. It’s become a necessary evil for coaches and a tradition for seniors. Mt. Pleasant hopes to put that aspect of this championship run in perspective.

“It’s about focus. There are the social aspect of things,” coach Brunson said. “There are a lot of things going on. Summer ball is here. You have those coaches pulling on them. You have the grad party stuff. You have the emotion of just being a graduate. There are all kinds of things pulling you in different directions.

“The hardest part about this year is just that focus level.”

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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