SLIPPERY ROCK - When folks woke up Thursday morning, I'm sure many were worried whether Thursday's District 10 Class 4A semifinal softball game between Grove City and Franklin would get wiped out by rain.
However, the showdown at the Slippery Rock University Softball Complex went off as scheduled under sunny skies, although Mother Nature threw in a surprise twist - gusting winds, which turned ordinary flyballs into several adventures.
And it was Grove City that benefited the most from the unique weather conditions, especially during a three-run first inning. After that, it was all Lizzie Malczak as the Eagles' starting pitcher fired a three-hit shutout in a 6-0 victory over coach Ed Winger's Knights.
"We lost to a good team with a heck of a lot more experience," Winger said as the Knights finished the season at 11-9. "This game came down to experience - and the wind was one of those factors where experience comes into play. If you don't know how to handle it, you start questioning yourself."
After Malczak sat the Knights down in order in the top of the first inning, the Eagles (15-5) mounted a rally in the bottom of the frame against Franklin pitcher Gracie Stryffeler.
With one out, Morgan Shingledecker walked before Camryn Billig sent a seemingly harmless flyball to left. However, the wind grabbed it and the ball landed untouched barely into the outfield grass for a single. Cleanup hitter Kelly McClearn bunted both runners up and Malczak made it count by drilling a two-run single up the middle.
But, the Eagles weren't done. Chloe Saylor followed with another single and Brooke Shingledecker punched a single to center, scoring Malczak and pushing the lead to 3-0.
Franklin bounced right back in the top of the second as Kaylyn Fry walked and Brandy Atwell had a bunt single to put runners at first and second with no outs. Camdon Bashor also put down a bunt, but Malczak fielded it and fired to third to force out Fry. Malczak fanned the next two hitters to escape the jam.
Stryffeler, who finished with 11 strikeouts in her six innings in the circle, fanned eight of the next 10 Eagles she faced until running into another jam in the fourth.
With two outs, Courtney Saylor hit a flyball to left. But, rather than getting caught up in the wind, this one sailed over the head of Ashley Amsler. Jordyn Anderson stepped up and hit a routine flyball to right. This time, the ball was blown back toward the infield and tipped off the outstretched glove of Erin Janidlo for an RBI single. Anderson went all the way to third on the play and Morgan Shingledecker coaxed another walk and took second on defensive indifference. One pitch after Billig hammered a foul home run to left, she laced a two-run single to center, giving the Eagles a 6-0 lead.
Malczak made it stand up.
The righthander gave up just two hits over the final five innings - both on singles to ChristaRose Hawke. She did get a couple of sparkling defensive plays by McClearn at first base that kept the Knights off the scoreboard.
Hawke slapped a one-out single in the third inning, but McClearn snagged a screaming liner off the bat of Hailie Fitzgerald, turned and tagged out Hawke retreating to the base.
In the top of the sixth, Hawke led off with another single, went to second on a wild pitch and to third on Fitzgerald's groundout. With two outs, Fry walked and went to second on defensive indifference. This time, Atwell roped a liner that McClearn once again picked off to end the inning.
"They made some big defensive plays at critical times, especially Brandy's line drive that would've driven in two runs," Winger said.
Kyla Hart reached on a one-out error in the top of the seventh, but Malczak sealed up the Eagles' victory by snagging a popup and striking out the final Knights' hitter.
"Gracie had 11 strikeouts against a pretty good contact team," Winger said. "I was real proud of a number of players. Gracie for the way she battled and how she worked the edges. Hailie Fitzgerald probably played the best game I've seen her play. She was in it all the way. And Camdon Bashor at first base. She made a couple of very nice plays, especially the crossover backhand that saved a couple of runs."
Overall, Winger was proud of how his team improved over the course of this season.
"We started this season as kind of a rag-tag bunch and had a number of players at new positions," he explained. "But, they just kept improving all the way through the season. They deserved to be here because of their hard work. I'm very proud at what they've accomplished."
It was also the final game for three senior starters - Fitzgerald, Ashley Amsler and Casey MacVay.
"The seniors got us through and they were a calming influence for the underclassmen," Winger said. "They kept everyone in a positive frame of mind. There was no drama and the girls focused on what they were here to do.
"We're going to miss those three seniors, but we've got a strong nucleus coming back," he added. "There are some girls who have made great strides this season and two or three coming up from middle school, so I feel the program is heading in a positive direction."