Drifton, Pa. - The Penn State University Athletic Conference softball post season kicked off with a bang on Friday as the Lady Lions took on local rival Penn State Schuylkill in a single elimination playoff game. With the game tied at 3-3 in the bottom of the fifth, freshman Sarah Coolbaugh (Harding, Pa.) launched her fourth home run of the year over the left field fence to put Hazleton on top for good. Freshman Kiana Lukoskie (Trevorton, Pa.), added an insurance run for Hazleton in the bottom of the sixth frame and Sophomore Samantha Varela (Hazleton, Pa.) and the Lady Lion defense closed out the game in the seventh to advance past Schuylkill by the final score of 5-3.
Freshman Jerrika Chorba (Bloomsburg, Pa.) continued her recent tear, scorching the ball for a 4-for-4 night out of the lead off spot, scoring a pair of important runs for the Lady Lions. Varela and Coolbaugh backed up that effort with multi-hit nights of their own, with Varela going 3-for-4 with an RBI and a run scored while Coolbaugh added the same production, finishing 2-for-4 with the go ahead home run.
Varela issued five walks to Schuylkill hitters but settled in after the first inning to hold her opponents to just three runs on five hits, none of which came after the fourth frame. Varela struck out four batters on her way to her 11th win of the season and first post-season victory as the ace of the staff.
Schuylkill hit the ball hard all night, but Hazleton's defense was on point to limit the damage. Joelle Moyer led the visitors with a 1-for-3 effort, a moon shot to center field that at the time gave Schuylkill a 3-2 advantage over Hazleton.
Cara Brennan pitched well in defeat, scattering 13 hits but allowing just five runs to the Hazleton offense.
Moments that Mattered
Early game jitters
Both squads came out a little sloppy in the first inning but as the game progressed fans were treated to an excellent performance.
Three of Varela's five free passes were issued in the first inning and Schuylkill capitalized for a quick 2-0 lead. Marcella Scheeler's bases loaded swinging bunt plated the game's first score and struggling to find the zone, Varela issued a free pass with the bases juiced to the next hitter as Schuylkill took command in the early stages of play.
Brennan would find herself under similar distress in the first frame, allowing the first two runners aboard and surrendering an RBI base knock to Varela. Later in the inning, freshman Breann Fetterman (Mountain Top, Pa.) would knot the score at 2-2, scoring from third on a wild pitch.
Cool under pressure
Moyer's home run would give Schuylkill a brief cushion, but Hazleton would strike back in the bottom of the fourth inning. Once again it was Chorba inflicting the damage, singling to left field and coming all the way around score after a pair of wild pitches. But Brennan would stay collected in the circle. With Hazleton threatening with the bases loaded, the hurler induced a game-saving double-play on a hard line-out to left field.
After pounding several long foul balls in the game, Coolbaugh came to the dish to lead off the fifth inning, and this time connected in fair territory. In a flash the tie ball game suddenly turned in Hazleton's favor as the freshman unleashed the power drive to left.
Coming up clutch
Varela rebounded after the solo shot to Moyer, tossing up zeros on the scoreboard for Schuylkill in the fifth and sixth frames and as Hazleton came to bat in the bottom half, the Lady Lions found themselves threatening once more. With two out and runners on first and second, Kiana Lukoskie battled at the plate. The freshman fought off a tough pitch from Brennan, placing the ball perfectly behind second base and scoring the hustling Varela from second for a much needed insurance tally and a 5-3 advantage.
Just three outs away from the win, Varela would have to earn it against the top hitters of Schuylkill. Makenna Rushannon laced a ground ball down the third base line, but was stymied by a fine defensive play by sophomore Shelby Jolliff (Dunkirk, Oh.) who pinch hit in the sixth and remained in the field.
That out was crucial as the hard-hitting Erin Luckenbill came to the plate with the bases empty, allowing Varela to challenge one of the league's top hitters and challenge her she did. Varela struck out the power hitter in crafty fashion and now needed just one out to send her team to the to the semifinals.
Schuylkill would extend the game after a Lady Lion miscue and bring the tying run to the plate, but it was Hazleton's night to shine. Varela induced a ground ball to the next hitter and the sure handed Chorba capped her exceptional night with one more fine play at shortstop, tossing the runner out at first to seal up the 5-3 victory.
The do or die win ends in Hazleton's favor and the Lady Lions are off to the double-elimination tournament next weekend. The Lady Lions will take on the best of the west and the eastern divisions as they compete for a PSUAC title. Games and start time still yet to be announced, but play will resume on Sunday, May 7th at the Penn State Worthington Scranton campus.