Smerick, River Hawks topple North Hills, advance to PIAA championship game

Monday, June 14, 2021 | 10:14 PM

For Emma Smerick, the softball field at Mars is out of this world.

In the WPIAL Class 5A semifinals against Fox Chapel on May 25, Smerick bunted twice for singles and scored the winning run in the bottom of the seventh.

Smerick, back at Mars for Monday’s PIAA semifinals against North Hills, this time delivered the long ball with a pair of two-run homers to help lift the River Hawks to a 7-4 victory and a berth in the state finals Friday at Penn State.

“It is such an awesome feeling. I am so proud of my team,” said Smerick, who also drew a walk and scored a total of three runs.

“We’ve come so far this season. I couldn’t be happier.”

Armstrong (18-5) will play for a state championship for the first time in the program’s fifth season since forming out of a merger between Ford City and Kittanning high schools.

The River Hawks will take on District 3 champion Lampeter-Strasburg on Friday at 4 p.m. at the Nittany Lion Softball Park.

“There is so many people who work so hard to put that product on the field,” Armstrong coach Doug Flanders said.

“It is so nice to see it pay off, not only for the girls but for our communities and everything else. They deserve it.”

Armstrong was able to regroup after a 12-2, mercy-rule loss to North Hills in the WPIAL title game June 2. The River Hawks routed District 3 runner-up Twin Valley and District 3 fourth-place Exeter Township en route to the semifinals.

“There were a lot of unknowns the first time we played (North Hills) with all the fans and everything,” Flanders said. “This time, we were ready. We made adjustments against that pitcher (Sophia Roncone). We knew what to expect, and that was the difference.”

The River Hawks have averaged 10.6 runs in their three PIAA contests. They collected five hits and six earned runs off of Roncone in 4 1/3 innings.

“We came back (from the WPIAL title loss) and were confident we could do this,” Smerick said.

North Hills, which had won six straight postseason games before Monday’s loss, finished its season at 18-6 overall.

“We knew before we started, win or lose, that to make the final four in the state is an incredible accomplishment,” North Hills coach Libby Gasior said.

“I will remember from this team this year that up or down, the girls were going to give us that same high level of effort. They kept that today, and I am happy with that.”

North Hills led 1-0 after a half inning of play.

Armstrong scored single runs in the first and second innings before the Indians tied the score in the top of the third.

That set up Smerick, as her first two-run shot put the River Hawks ahead 4-2 in the bottom of the third. Her second made it 6-2 in the fourth.

“I was just looking for something in the zone,” Smerick said. “I got walked twice before (in the WPIAL title game). I was just looking for something to drive.”

Jesse Pugh got into the home-run act with a solo shot in the bottom of the fifth.

Hanna Murphy returned the favor for North Hills with a two-run homer in the top of the sixth, but that was as close as the Indians were able to get.

Armstrong pitcher Cameryn Sprankle picked up the complete-game victory. Throwing 89 pitches, she gave up seven hits and three earned runs while striking out one.

Murphy and Kassidy Wittig each finished with two hits in North Hills’ seven-hit attack.

Mackenzie Egley and Riley Kilgore also tallied RBIs for the River Hawks.

Armstrong joins fellow WPIAL softball teams West Greene (Class A), Ligonier Valley (Class 2A), Mt. Pleasant (Class 3A) and Beaver Area (Class 4A) in pursuit of state titles Thursday or Friday.

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at or via Twitter .

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