ORWIGSBURG – Northern Lehigh entered Thursday's District 11 Class AA softball championship game with blazing bats and sizzling confidence.
The Bulldogs' 14-6 regular season record was sparked by comeback victories and offensive fireworks.
During a perfect postseason run, Northern Lehigh had turned a smoldering fire into an inferno. The Bulldogs had won four straight playoff games, scoring a combined 23 runs in the last two games alone.
It appeared that Northern Lehigh had gotten hot at the perfect time.
That was until Pine Grove and standout pitcher Hope Spancake doused the Bulldogs' raging flames like they were a birthday candle.
Spancake tossed a two-hitter, struck out six and allowed just one ball out of the infield the entire game as Pine Gove posted a 3-0 victory. The shutout lowered a miniscule 0.23 ERA that Spancake brought into the game.
"She (Spancake) is good, very good," said Bulldog coach Brian Schell. "We've faced pitchers that might have thrown a little harder, but her change-up is the best we've seen. Because of the way she mixes up her pitches, I'd say she is the best we've faced this season."
Although Spancake lived up to her advance billing and the Bulldogs made things tough on themselves by committing a pair of first inning errors and falling behind 3-0, Schell said his team never lost confidence.
That's not surprising considering how it earned its place in the championship game.
Northern Lehigh defeated Catasauqua, 15-5, in the D-11 quarterfinals and Palmerton, 8-3, in the semifinals. Despite the comfortable margins of victories in those two games, the Bulldogs trailed Catty as late as the fourth inning and were tied with Palmerton in the fifth inning.
"We have come back to win games so many times this season and we've had a lot of big innings late in games," said Schell. "So there was no panic in the dugout either by the players or coaches when we fell behind.
"Our girls were fighting right to the very end. We expected to comeback right up to the final out. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. But this team never quit."
Schell gave a great deal of credit for the Bulldogs' relentless attitude this year to senior captains and four-year starters Julie Wagaman and Jocelyn Rodrigues.
Rodrigues, who was among the team leaders in hits and RBIs, said it was disappointing seeing the season and her career come to an end, but was still able to find some positives.
"It's tough getting this close to a district championship and the state playoffs and coming up short," said Rodrigues. "But I really enjoyed this season and overall I'm happy with what we accomplished as a team."
Wagaman, who turned in another strong pitching performance to cap an MVP-type of season, said she wanted her senior year to be special and took it upon herself as a team leader to make sure that message got across to the underclassmen.
"It's tough losing this game because our goal was to get a District championship to go with our Colonial League championship," said Wagaman. "But even though it didn't work out that way, I'm proud of everyone on this team.
"We were league champs for the first time in about 14 or 15 years and I think we helped the program take another step forward. Now it's up to the girls returning next year to take that next step - and I believe they can do that."
Thanks to the performance and leadership of Northern Lehigh's four senior starters this season – Wagaman, Rodrigues, Jen Bet and Kayla Toth – the Bulldogs already appear to have the spark and the example needed to blaze to even greater heights in 2011.