It took a little while, but the Iron Nine came through.
Penn Manor’s softball team, dubbed the Iron Nine by their coach, Dave Stokes – largely because the lineup you see now is the same exact one that took the field for the first time, 27 games ago (with one exception, more on that later) – advanced to the quarterfinals of the PIAA Class 6A state tournament with a 9-0 victory over Garnet Valley Monday afternoon at Manor Middle School.
The Comets will face Spring-Ford (21-2), the District One fourth-place team, Thursday at a site and time to be announced. The Rams 10-runned St. Hubert’s in six innings, 11-0, Monday in another 6A prelim.
The L-L League and District Three champion Comets (25-2) scored seven times in the last two innings to blow open a tight contest. Even though they led the District One sixth-place Jaguars (19-6) from the jump, the Comets never felt comfortable, until they did.
Held hitless through four innings by Jags’ starter Anna Sidlowski – but holding a 2-0 lead – the Comets erupted for four consecutive hits to start the fifth inning, taking a 4-0 advantage.
They added five runs in a sixth-inning bat-around plus-one, highlighted by Amelia Trout’s three-run triple, to eliminate any mystery.
Trout, used mostly as a courtesy runner in the regular season, got the start in left field in place of Maddie Mitchell. Mitchell, on a three-week family trip out west, will miss the rest of the season.
As is often the case in games with ball-and-bat, the first chance of the game – on Julie Bowmaster’s second pitch – found Trout as Sidlowski lifted a ball to left. Trout broke to her left towards the alley, then bicycled back to her right as the wind blew the ball towards the line. She made the catch, falling prone on the turf but holding on for the first out of the inning. And the most adventurous play of the game.
It wasn’t the only defensive gem by the Comets. With a runner on first and one out in the fifth, the Jaguars’ Maddie Mendoza lined to right. Kaitlyn Ream charged to catch the ball before it hit the grass, then fired to first, doubling up Elizabeth O’Conner on a great pick by Regan Soboleski.
The Comets also picked Ragan Bliss off first in the third inning as second baseman Emily Riggs sneaked in behind Bliss to take catcher Jordan Bailey’s snap throw.
In a nine pitch at-bat, Kira Green led off the Comet first with a walk – one of seven free passes issued by Sidlowski – after falling behind 0-2. Failing to get the bunt down, Bailey grounded to third base. Anna Sareyka’s throw was high and ticked off Jenna Fulmer’s glove into foul territory, and Green motored home as Bailey pulled into third.
“That’s not going to happen in every game, in 6A state competition,” Stokes said. “It’s one of those things. Probably the first time it happened all year for them.”
One of those things Stokes was also familiar with from his career competing in men’s fastpitch and he took a moment to consult with Bailey. “I told Jordan, ‘I’ve pitched a lot myself. Trust me, she’s really upset right now. Look for the wild pitch.’ ”
Sure enough, Sidlowski’s second pitch to Riggs sailed off the backstop screen and Bailey scampered home with the second run.
That would be all there was for the Comets as Sidlowski’s effective wildness, and more effective changeup, had the Comets mystified.
“Our team’s fought for her all year,” said Jags coach Ryan Garrett, “and she’s fought for them. We just came up short, and came up short against a very good team.”
“I think she may be one of the best pitchers we faced this year,” Stokes said of Sidlowski. “She had strong velocity, a decent changeup.”
In turn, Bowmaster had the Jags beating her drop into the ground. She got five groundouts and two popups in addition to the defensive plays behind her. The two hits she allowed – Sidlowski’s bunt single in the fourth and O’Conner’s single in the fifth – never left the infield.
When Bliss reached on an error to open the sixth, Stokes made the call to the bullpen, with Riggs coming on to strike out all six batters she faced.
Leading off the fifth, Bailey shot a double down the first-base line for the Comets’ first hit. Riggs doubled her home on a ball to the fence in center and Audrey Paterson singled up the middle, scoring Riggs.
The Comets would eventually load the bases before Sidlowski escaped on a forceout at home and a comebacker, but the Comets had breathing room.
They loaded the bases to start the sixth inning on infield singles from Green and Bailey and a Riggs walk. Paterson’s bases-loaded walk signaled the end of Sidlowski’s day and Trout cleared the bags with a triple to left off reliever Kelly Cornog and scored on Bria Booth’s two-out hit.