Lions win rubber match with Schuylkill to advance to PSUAC Softball finals

Cassidy Lentz winds up to pitch.
Cassidy Lentz winds up to pitch.

Schuylkill Haven, Pa. - The Hazleton Nittany Lions have advanced to the Penn State University Athletic Conference softball finals after winning one of two games on Sunday at Island Park versus Penn State Schuylkill. Hazleton struggled to produce offense in the first game on Sunday, garnering just four hits in a 2-0 loss at the hands of their local rival but bounced back in game two with a 10-hit effort to capture game two by the score of 6-2 and advance to the championship. 

Game 1: Penn State Schuylkill 0, Penn State Hazleton 0 - Final 7 Innings

Hazleton sophomore Rebecca Baum (Stewartsville, Pa.) allowed just two runs from the circle in game one, however that was still enough for Schuylkill to force Hazleton into a must win scenario on Sunday. Baum navigated her way out of trouble in the first frame and cruised through the second inning, but three straight hits to start of the third inning spelled trouble for the hurler and the Nittany Lions defense. With the bases jammed full of Schuylkill players, Baum and the defense retired two straight hitters to keep the sheet clean for Baum, but a costly throwing error on the potential third out allowed the eventual game winning run to score on the play. 

Schuylkill went on to tack on an insurance score in the fifth inning, getting a clutch, two-out double from Kaely Walshaw to plate the second and final run of the game. Hazleton had their chances in this one, but fell victim to fine defensive plays by Schuylkill including three, double-plays that kept the Lions in check. Hazleton got the tying run on base in their final at-bat of the game but failed to convert as Schuylkill's Sierra Santarsiero induce a pair of pop-ups to end the game and earn the complete game, shut-out victory. 

Schuylkill was led by Walshaw who knocked in both runs in the Schuylkill victory. Walshaw finished 1-for-4 with two RBI while Megan Stokes went 3-for-4 to lead all hitters in the game. Hazleton combined for just four hits in the loss with freshman Ashley Wilson collecting two hits in three trips to the plate. 

Game 2: Penn State Schuylkill 2, Penn State Hazleton 6 - Final 7 Innings

With game one in the books, both teams now faced elimination from championship contention in a must-win third meeting between Schuylkill and Hazleton. Once again it was Schuylkill drawing first blood, scoring on another error by the Hazleton defense but unlike the day's first matchup Hazleton would respond in the same inning to keep the game tied. With one out in the bottom of the first, Rebecca Baum and freshman Tori Rabuck (Tower City, Pa.) combined for back to back hits to score Hazleton's first run of the day. 

Throughout the next five innings of play, senior pitcher Cassidy Lentz (Germansville, Pa.) controlled the game with a fine effort from the circle. She allowed just two hits from the second inning through the sixth frame and just six base runners in total over that stretch with zero runs allowed. Lentz kept the opponents in check long enough for Hazleton to finally put a dent in the armor of Schuylkill's Santarsiero in the fourth inning. There, Hazleton took their first lead of the day, getting three consecutive hits with two outs in the inning from senior Sadie Heiney (Palmerton, Pa.), senior McKayla Wildrick (Bangor, Pa.) and freshman Macy Schnatter (Stroudsburg, Pa.) and scoring three runs to take a 4-1 advantage. 

Hazleton didn't stop there. After Lentz shut down Schuylkill in the top half of the fifth inning, Rabuck led off the bottom half with a double and Hazleton had runners at second and third with no outs after sophomore Linsey Fisk (Milliville, Pa.) singled and stole second. Freshman Ashley Wilson (Cresco, Pa.) followed in suit with an infield single to drive in Rabuck and senior Sky Esterly's (Nazareth, Pa.) sacrfice fly to left field gave Hazleton a five run cushion heading into the final two innings of play. 

Lentz induced three fly ball outs in the top of the sixth to retire the side in the top of the sixth inning and after Hazleton went blank in the bottom of the sixth, Hazleton needed just three outs to advance. Lentz struck out the first hitter of the inning but with one away, back to back singles left runners at the corners for Schuylkill. Schuylkill's Alyssa Gerber drove in a run with a sacrifice fly but Lentz and the Lions were content to trade runs for outs at this stage of the game. With two outs and a runner at first, Lentz fired home to Kaely Walshaw. Walshaw hit the ball hard but Baum was there in plenty of time to make the catch in center field, closing out the day with a 6-2 victory and Hazleton's first trip to the PSUAC Championship since the 2017 season. 

The Nittany Lions registered multiple hits in the win including Rabuck, Fisk and Heiney while Schnatter finished 1-for-3 with two RBI. Lentz allowed just five hits on the day, allowing two earned runs and two walks while striking out four batters in the win. 

Next up: Hazleton is off the the conference championship where they'll face Penn State Brandywine in a three game series to determine the 2021-22 victor. Hazleton and Brandywine will square off at Heindl Field in Dubois, Pa. at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 8 and then it's off to Beard Field on Monday, May 9 to decide the winner in a best of three series.