ORWIGSBURG – Thursday afternoon, the Northern Lehigh softball team walked on to Blue Mountain's Patton Field with one hope ... a District 11 Championship.
By the time they walked off it, the only hope that mattered belonged to Pine Grove ... Hope Spancake.
Spancake limited the Bulldogs to just two infield singles in seven shutout innings, as she hurled the Cardinals to their second straight District 11 Class AA Championship with a 3-0 victory.
The win improves the Cardinals to 23-1 on the season, as they advance into the first round of the PIAA State Tournament where they will play District 2 Champion Nanticoke on Monday afternoon.
While Spancake struck out six Bulldogs in the game to improve her record to 18-1, the true measuring stick of her dominance lies in her cumulative season statistics.
In 130 innings pitched, Spancake carries a 0.22 ERA, with just four earned runs allowed on 40 hits and eight walks to go along with 218 strikeouts.
"Hope Spancake is the real deal. We know that and everybody knows that," stated Northern Lehigh head coach Brian Schell. "We've faced pitchers that fired it harder, but in terms of her change-up and being able to mix her pitches, she's the best we've seen all year."
The Bulldogs entered the contest having given up eight runs in their two previous District playoff games (in retrospect, Pine Grove has given up just eight runs all season long in 23 games), so Northern Lehigh's chances for success hinged on a strong start ... one the Bulldogs almost pulled off.
Leadoff batter Erika Bowman reached on a fielding error and Kristi Seiler tapped an infield single to put runners on the corners with two outs. However, Spancake got out of the jam by striking out Tamara "Bam" Stubits, her second strikeout of the inning.
The Cardinals then mounted a retaliation plan in the bottom of the first frame, which was put into motion by a leadoff single by Samantha Bertasavage. Jena Leffler reached base safely when Northern Lehigh misplayed her sacrifice bunt attempt. Spancake then moved the runners into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt and a Toni Dissinger single to center field scored Bertasavage for the game's first run. Karissa Reeves' fielder's choice ground out scored Leffler and Dissinger came around to score on another fielding error, the Bulldogs' second of the inning.
"You can't give a team like Pine Grove the runs we gave them in the first inning, especially a team with a pitcher like Hope that just dominates when she gets a lead," added Schell. "I felt like we put the bat on the ball today, but we just couldn't find any holes ... not one."
The Bulldogs (18-7) reached base just three more times the rest of the game (twice on Pine Grove errors and once on a bunt single by Julie Wagaman in the sixth inning); however, all three times the runners were left stranded at first base.
"If we can score two or three runs, especially early on, we're awfully tough to beat," said Pine Grove head coach Alan Felty. "Our defense is pretty decent and our pitching is excellent, but I think the thing that sets this team apart from everyone else is their confidence level. They know what they have to do and they just go out there and get it done."
Wagaman limited the Cardinals to four singles while striking out six.
"I was proud that the girls never quit and they kept fighting to the very end," concluded Schell. "This group of girls has accomplished so much over the last three years and I'm extremely proud of them. To win the Colonial League and to get to the District final in the same year is something very special and they have nothing to hang their heads about."
No. Lehigh 000 000 0 - 0 2 3
Pine Grove 300 000 x - 3 4 3
Wagaman and Bowman; Spancake and Reeves. W - Spancake. L - Wagaman.