One big hit enough for Avonworth to win pitchers’ duel over Burrell in softball semifinal

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Tuesday, May 23, 2023 | 9:11 PM


Avonworth cleanup hitter Leah Kuban fell victim to Burrell pitcher Katie Armstrong twice in Tuesday’s WPIAL Class 3A semifinal softball game at North Allegheny.

She struck out against the Bucs senior to begin the bottom of the second and then went down on strikes to end the bottom of the fourth.

But Kuban, a junior right fielder, had the last laugh.

With two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth of a scoreless battle, Kuban crushed an Armstrong offering to the wall in left-center field.

The bases-clearing hit was all the scoring in the game as Avonworth punched its ticket to a third WPIAL title game in four seasons with a 3-0 victory.

“I talked with coach (Jenna) Muncie before I went to the plate, and she said that pressure is a good thing. Pressure is a privilege,” said Kuban, who had one of the Antelopes’ three hits off of Armstrong. “Those are the moments you live for. Having that chance was something I always imagined. I was just thinking, ‘Hit the ball and make contact.’ ”

The win, Avonworth’s 20th of the season against just one defeat, keeps its title-defense hopes alive. The top-seeded Antelopes will take on No. 2 Southmoreland for the Class 3A championship March 31 or June 1 at Cal (Pa.).

The Scotties completed the title-matchup with a 7-0 victory Tuesday over No. 3 Waynesburg Central.

“Winning the WPIAL and state title last year, everyone was coming for our necks,” Kuban said. “Every game’s had a playoff feel. We just had to think about each game and not about the end results.”

Avonworth came into the game with a pair of playoff 10-run mercy rule results, including last Thursday’s 10-0 victory over Central Valley when it smacked six home runs.

But the Antelopes’ were limited by Armstrong, who collected seven strikeouts. Armstrong fanned 13 in a 2-1 loss to Avonworth on May 9.

“Coming into a game like this, I think you know what it’s going to be,” Muncie said. “I think you know it’s going to be a pitchers’ duel. Both teams are really, really good, and both really wanted to go to the big game. All we could hope for is that we come out on top at the end, and my kids stepped up at the end.”

Two of the three Avonworth hits Tuesday came in the bottom of the sixth. But the rally in the inning started with a strikeout that turned into a walk.

Pinch hitter Jayla Jones battled Armstrong to a full count, fouling off several two-strike offerings. Armstrong got Jones to swing for what appeared to be strike three. But the home plate umpire ruled an illegal pitch. That turned strike three into ball four, and Jones was awarded first.

Mara Stetser, the left fielder and No. 9 hitter in the order, followed with an infield single that traveled a couple of feet in front of home plate.

Armstrong got leadoff hitter Sydney Savatt to line out to short, and Armstrong’s counterpart in the pitching circle, Alivia Lantzy, struck out.

Catcher Rylee Gray then worked a 3-1 count before drawing a walk to load the bases and setting the stage for Kuban’s heroics.

“The umpire said (Armstrong) was crow-hopping on her delivery,” Burrell coach Rick Nealer said. “The other pitcher was doing the same thing, but she wasn’t called on it. We should’ve been out of the inning with no runs allowed because the strikeout (Lantzy) would’ve been the third out. It was a tough pill to swallow. We had two good teams going here. Avonworth is a heckuva team.”

Despite the loss, Burrell’s season is far from over. Having already clinched a spot in the state playoffs for the second year in a row, the Bucs (13-6) will play for third place against Waynesburg Central at a site, date and time to be determined.

Burrell knows what it is like to come back and win a consolation final. The Bucs did it last year as they fell to Elizabeth Forward in the Class 4A semifinals before rebounding to beat Montour.

“We have to come back strong and stay the course,” Nealer said. “We have to shake this one off and get the next one. It’s one game at a time for us. We want to get back and build some momentum for the state playoffs.”

While Lantzy didn’t fare well at the plate with a flyout and two strikeouts, she was strong in the circle. Burrell’s lone hit came with two outs in the fifth as Bucs second baseman Sabrina Hoover singled with two outs.

But Lantzy got Burrell right fielder Tina Gural to fly out to right to end the inning.

Lantzy struck out five. The only other Bucs batter to reach base was catcher Bella Stewart who reached on an error to start the game. She advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Armstrong. But a strikeout and a groundout ended the early Burrell threat.

“There is a lot of softball left for this team,” Nealer said. “Who knows? We might see Avonworth again.”

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.

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