BLOOMSBURG - When Northeast Bradford took the field against Greenwood in the PIAA Class A quarterfinals Thursday at Bloomsburg University, the Panthers were perfect.
The Northern Tier team rolled through District 4 competition and sported a 22-0 record. Greenwood certainly had a tough mountain to climb.
But ever so slightly, the Wildcats put one foot in front of the other. Inning by inning, the District 3 champions kept saying, "Nine more outs, six more outs, three more outs."
Sentinel photo by NICK?WAGNER
Greenwood first baseman Kendra Seaman, right, gloves a ball for the final out in the Wildcats' PIAA Class A softball quarterfinal win Thursday at Bloomsburg University. She is backed up by teammate Chelsea Hicks (6); pitcher Jess Heichel looks on.
And then it happened - a soft liner was laced toward Greenwood first baseman Kendra Seaman. She put it away for the final out of the game and a 3-1 win for the Wildcats.
Greenwood scored all three of its runs in the third inning. Northeast Bradford's lone run was also in the third. The Wildcats (17-5) are headed to the PIAA Class A final four for the first time in school history.
"It means everything," Greenwood senior Salene Shaffer said. "We've never been this far and to do this for coach Gantt and everyone it's great. This is the best senior year I could ever have."
With the win, the Wildcats will face District 4 runner-up Southern Columbia in the eastern finals. The Tigers took down District 1 champ Bristol, 6-1, to advance. The game will be Monday at 2 p.m.; the Wildcats return here to Bloomsburg for the game.
Greenwood once again got an outstanding pitching performance from Jess Heichel. Coming off a complete-game win over Northwest, Heichel was up to her old tricks again in the circle. In seven innings of work, the junior allowed one run on six hits.
"You almost come to expect it from her," Greenwood coach Troy Gantt said. "She has been tough all season and she did it again today."
However, things didn't start out the way Heichel and Gantt hoped for.
In the first, back-to-back singles from the Panthers had the Wildcats in an early jam. But Heichel remained calm to get the next three batters in order. Shaffer made two nice plays at third to preserve a scoreless first.
Eventually, Northeast Bradford broke through to take the lead. In the third, a single from the Panthers' No. 3 hitter Haylie Phillips started the rally. Cleanup batter Kelsey Carlsen then smoked a laser to left that chased Phillips around for the game's first run and a Panther lead.
Northeast Bradford pitcher Chelsea Souto struck out the side in the first two innings. But Gantt kept reminding his players to just put the ball in play and be patient. That's exactly what happened in the latter half of the third.
Seaman led off the frame with a walk. Shaffer made that walk hurt. The senior squared to bunt and laid down a beauty.
The ball was fielded by the Panther third baseman, who sent the throw sailing into right field foul territory. Seaman came all the way around to score from first.
"When I heard coach Gantt saying, 'Go, go,' I got really excited," Shaffer explained. "When she crossed the plate it was awesome."
But the Wildcats weren't done yet.
"The confidence started to flow a little bit," Gantt said of the big inning. "After the first inning I think the girls started to doubt themselves a little bit. Things just started to happen."
Shaffer made it all the way to third on the error by Northeast Bradford. Brittany Fleisher then bunted and reached safely with Shaffer holding at third. With no outs, A.J. Seigel, who had four RBIs in Greenwood's first-round game, grounded out to second to bring Shaffer in and give the Wildcats the lead for good.
And the Wildcats still weren't done yet.
Amy Heggenstaller, who finished the game 2-for-2, drove a fly ball to center to bring in Fleisher to move the lead to 3-1.
From there it was all Heichel and the Greenwood defense.
"It's good to get here and the girls are thrilled," Gantt said. "That was genuinely the best game we've played all season."
Heichel allowed only two hits the rest of the way. From that point on, Northeast Bradford didn't move a runner past second base. She finished the game with only four strikeouts. But Seigel, who made more than a few nifty plays in center, and the Greenwood defense didn't budge. Except for an error with two outs in the final frame, the Wildcats were flawless to end the game.
"The defense was just phenomenal," Gantt said.
Up next is a date with Southern Columbia. The Tigers fell to Northeast Bradford, 2-1, in the District 4 championship game on May 31. But with four teams left in Class A, there's only one thing a team can do if they look to win. Shaffer said it best.
"Hopefully we play 100 percent," she said. "If that's not enough then that's Ok. We just don't want to make mistakes. We have to play 100 percent and make the plays."