As the slow pop-up rose into the heavy air of Beard Field at the Nittany Lion Softball Park scores of green and white clad fans collectively held their breath as they tracked the flight of what turned out to be the final out of a stellar softball season and the end of a game that epitomized the never-say-die attitude of this phenomenal group of players.
With the smack of ball into leather the crowd erupted as right fielder McKenna Berg closed her glove and secured not only the out, but the guarantee that for the second time in Donegal softball history PIAA gold would belong to the lady Indians.
It also marked the second time in the past seven months Donegal brought home a PIAA championship as the field hockey team realized the same accomplishment in November. Teammates Rachel Robinson, Grace Miller, and Rachael Overlander were all members of that historic run as well.
Amidst the cheers and a slight cloud of infield dust a pile of elated young ladies shared smiles, laughter, and tears as they reveled in a feeling that only those who have fought together as a team and faced down adversity to come out on the side of victory can fully understand.
Donegal may have come away with the final prize in Friday's 9-7 win over Cedar Cliff in the PIAA 5A championship but it was anything but easy as they twice had to overcome a deficit, including a six-run fifth inning by the Colts that erased a 3-1 lead the ladies had built in the previous at bat.
With their goal firmly in sight, the Tribe battled back and answered the call with six runs of its own in the bottom of the inning and in turn bolstered the confidence of freshman relief pitcher Sierra Neiss, who was the victim of a three-run blast off the bat of Colts' Maddie Sitler that easily cleared the fence in center field increasing the lead to 7-3.
"Sierra did a great job, she came in and made good pitches, only an unfortunate play with the sun getting in our fielder's eyes giving CC an additional at bat hurt her," commented head coach Wayne Emenheiser referring to a small pop-up that dropped in untouched behind third base. "But she regrouped from that and threw two scoreless innings to finish the deal."
The young pitcher took the ball from ace Mikayla Yoder who surrendered four runs, two of which were earned, on seven hits over four and a third innings, including a solo shot over the left field fence by Karson Hastings to open the fifth.
After a shaky start in the first inning, in which a throwing error allowed McDonald to reach third and eventually score on a sacrifice fly by Olivia Jordan, Yoder worked her way out of trouble and ended the inning with the Colts ahead 1-0.
Donegal came back in the fourth when Yoder (1-3, double) stepped to the plate with one out and sent the first pitch she saw from Colts' pitcher Avery Winchall over Hasting's head in left field to end up on second.
Kaitlyn Witmer (2-3, double, 3 RBI) worked a walk and Hornick (1-2, 1 RBI) sent a single into center field which plated Jessica Kosheba, courtesy runner for Yoder, to tie the game at 1-1.
Enter Robinson, the consummate, unflappable leader who could very easily make the case as the best individual athlete to walk the halls of Donegal and is most assuredly a shoe-in for a future spot in the school's Athletic Hall of Fame.
When asked about his star second baseman, Emenheiser acknowledged not only Robinson but his entire group of graduating seniors saying, "Rachel as well as all of the seniors have showed great leadership and the never-give-up-attitude their entire careers, I believe that is why they really had so much success during their careers, along with being tremendously talented softball players."
He also knows the intangibles that come along with having such an experienced group of veterans, "The seniors are a great group of young ladies; between all of them they have played over 450 varsity games and have won every team championship possible, Section, League, District and now State Championship. It has been an honor watching them play and coaching them over the last four years, seeing them mature into the amazing young ladies they all are. We will miss all of them and what they brought to this historic team."
As is most often the case in athletics the playmakers come through in the clutch, and this time was no exception as Robinson (2-3, triple, 3 RBI) ripped a shot into left field that got by Hastings for a bases-clearing triple and a 3-1 Donegal lead.
Cedar Cliff, which eliminated Donegal from the District Three tournament with a 9-5 semifinal victory, proved that it belonged in the title game as well by putting up the monster fifth inning that could very easily have demoralized the Indians.
Unfortunately, for the Colts, quitting is not in the Indians' DNA and they never hung their heads or got caught up in negative thoughts.
"The one thing about our group is that they never get stressed and never give up. I truly believe they do not look at the opponent but look at what they need to do to win," stated Emenheiser. "I did not need to say anything after the top of the fifth, they were focused from the time they got to the dugout to turn things around."
Showing cracks in the armor, Winchell surrendered back-to-back walks to Emily Graham (0-2, run scored) and Savanna Kolenda (0-3, run scored) in the bottom half of the fifth.
Now, feeling a shift in momentum, Donegal's offense rose to the challenge as Morgan Biesecker (1-4, 1 RBI) singled home Graham and Yoder worked Winchell for her third walk of the inning to load the bases.
Sensing an opportunity, Witmer (2-3, double, 3 RBI) calmly stepped to the plate and showed the stadium why she finished the season with the third highest batting average at .455.
With the count at 1-2 the senior first baseman ripped a line drive past a diving Naomi Englehart in right-center for a bases-clearing double to knot the game at 7-7.
Robinson's second hit of the game went for a single that plated Witmer for the 8-7 lead, and Berg (1-3) followed with a single into shallow right that advanced Robinson to second base before Neiss (1-33, 1RBI) sent her home on a base hit to make it 9-7 heading into the sixth.
Neiss, her confidence restored, settled in on the rubber and retired five of the final seven batters she faced to finish with three unearned runs on four hits and one strikeout.
Cedar Cliff threatened in both of the remaining innings as McDonald singled and stole second in the sixth, but was thrown out
attempting to steal third, and Jordan doubled to start the seventh, advancing to third on a sacrifice fly by Winchell.
A put-out by Kolenda at short and the final pop-up to Berg in right sealed the deal for the ladies and completed a win for the ages.
To reach the finals Donegal faced Section Three foe Lampeter-Strasburg in the semifinals and handled the Pioneers, 7-0. It was the fourth time the Indians defeated L-S in five tries this season.
Junior left fielder Grace Miller played superb defense tracking down five fly balls including two diving catches to help keep the L-S offense in check.
Yoder pitched five innings of four hit ball while Neiss only surrendered two hits over the final two.
Hornick (3-4, double, 2RBI) and Robinson (2-4, double, 2RBI) led at the plate for the Indians.
Eight years prior to Friday's romping celebration in the infield another medal ceremony took place on the infield of Glatfelter Field in Columbia.
That one marked the end of a 10u tournament featuring a Mount Joy team and a Maytown team that battled to an international tiebreak finish in the championship game.
No less than four of the players on the field that day in 2009 comprised the starting lineup of Friday's game and I am sure there were more than this aging writer's memory can recall.
As the parents of both teams gathered on the field to take photos to add to half-filled scrapbooks, Chris Miller, former Donegal baseball coach and father of Grace, looked around and announced to those of us on the field that we could very well be looking at a future state championship team.
Congratulations to those young ladies whose childhood dreams from that day finally came true on a hot day in State College, as well as every other player in the dugout on Friday whose name will be forever associated with a part of Donegal history.