UNIVERSITY PARK - Mental edge.
Coaches preach it, fans can see it, and it's an inherent part of the best athletes' game. But unfortunately for Mifflin County, its edge was pretty blunt during the first round of the PIAA Class AAAA softball tournament Monday.
The Huskies lost the game to Cumberland Valley by a score of 9-1, and four of those nine Cumberland Valley runs passed because of Mifflin County errors, miscues and wild pitches.
"All along, I felt like our pitching and defense has been pretty solid. Then today, it just wasn't there," Mifflin County coach Jack McCurdy said, explaining that Monday's miscues were uncharacteristic of his otherwise defensively strong team.
At bat, Mifflin County also had an uncharacteristically slow day, as Cumberland Valley hurler Kayla Sullenberger held the Huskies to one run on six hits - both of which are below Mifflin County's average.
"(Sullenberger) was on today. She was really on. She was throwing hard, and we were behind it," McCurdy said.
McCurdy did credit his girls with starting to figure out Sullenberger toward the end of the game - five of their six hits were notched in the last three innings - but it was only Kali Hunter's deep fly into left center during the bottom of the seventh that brought about any Mifflin County runs.
Mifflin County split with Commonweath Division opponent Cumberland Valley in the regular season with the second game featuring a clutch Brooke Wilson hit in the bottom of the eighth to lift the Huskies, 5-4. The game was an example of the tenacious spirit the Huskies have displayed throughout the season, so Monday's flat-footed effort was not only uncharacteristic, but completed the Huskies' season on an unusual low note.
However, even if Monday's departure from the state tournament may have felt premature, McCurdy was quick to point out the many highlights his girls collected over the season.
"It's tough when you end your season with a loss like that and sure it's disappointing, but really you have to gain perspective, lean back and look at the entire season," he said, pointing out that the girls finished second in the Commonwealth Division, notched the first District 6 title a Mifflin County softball program has won since the 1980s and also made it one step further than they did last year with their trip to the state tournament.
So while the Huskies' mental edge wasn't as sharp as could be Monday, they not only completed a strong season, but the program as a whole also has a bright future to look forward to.
"I think that's something that every team has to continually work on," McCurdy said of the mental edge. "But as far as the future of this program, there's definitely a future for this program."
And, as he explained, it all begins in the offseason.
"What we're trying to do is establish a culture here, and it's a culture of you put hard work in, and you continually try to improve. The girls the past two seasons have worked really hard in open gyms, and I think that's where you get better as a program," he said.
McCurdy also pointed out that Mifflin County has a strong junior high program with a lot of talent, so it's not just the current varsity group that is building for the future, but even the younger girls are preparing for future success.
One of the ways Mifflin County will be able to grow this seed of success is by playing tough competition, and that's exactly what the Commonwealth Division has to offer.
Cumberland Valley, Mifflin County and Central Dauphin finished first through third in the Commonwealth Division, and the three teams were also present in the first round of the state tournament, so it's no exaggeration to say that Mifflin County was playing high quality teams long before it stepped on Beard Field for the state tournament.
As McCurdy put it, "There's three teams out of the Commonwealth Division that made the final16. That tells you everything you need to know."
With a talented group of players moving up through the program and the competition to force the team to grow, Mifflin County certainly has the potential to make strides in the future, but Monday's defeat is still bitter and only time will tell if the work the Huskies have put in will ever result in reaching the ultimate goal.
"There's only two ways that you end the season when you make states - you end with a tough loss or you win the state championship. And as much as we would have like to play on - it would have been a better experience for our team down the road - we made it one game further than we did last year," McCurdy said.