WEST GROVE — This was the day Keiva Middleton came of age as a pitcher.
Lampeter-Strasburg's junior right-hander pitched a two-hit shutout and led the Pioneers to their fifth straight PIAA Class 5A Eastern softball final as they downed Springfield (Delco) 5-0 on Thursday afternoon at Avon Grove High School.
Both hits — a first-inning double in the gap in left and a sixth-inning single to right — came off the bat of shortstop Ally Heston. Middleton walked two, hit a batter and struck out seven.
"It wasn't a great game for us," she said. "I mean, we picked it up when we needed to, but it wasn't a great start."
Still, the Pioneers (27-1) advanced to Monday's state semifinals, and will face the winner between District Two champion West Scranton and District One champion West Chester East, site and time to be determined.
There haven't been many times this season where Middleton hasn't basked in the warmth of the Pioneers prolific offense. Thursday that offense was chilled by Springfield's Sam Ciasullo, who used a rising fastball to keep batters off balance.
"I don't think she was overpowering, we've seen faster pitching," L-S coach Gene Charles observed, but added, "she moved the ball better than what I saw."
Ciasullo got early help from her defense as Ava Craddock made a running, diving catch on Middleton's deep fly to the gap in right leading off the second. Center fielder Jill Condi banged off the fence, but held on to the ball, as Daisy Frank lined to the gap leading off the fourth.
"We were snakebit early," said Charles. "Their center fielder and right fielder robbed us."
While Ciasullo was baffling bats, Middleton was pitching out of serious trouble, perhaps the worst she'd faced this season.
Three second-inning errors by L-S put runners on second and third with no outs for Springfield (17-6).
"I'm thinking, ‘All right, we have to regroup,’ " said Charles, who called time to address a gathering of six in the circle.
He said he told them: “Ladies. This isn't us. Right now, this stops. Put this all behind us."
The Pioneers got the first out as third baseman Emily Platt threw out Jordan Galloway trying to score on Lanie Morris' ground ball. Middleton got back-to-back strikeouts and the danger receded.
The Cougars got a leadoff walk in the third, immediately giving it back when Craddock walked on a wild pitch and kept going to second. Trying for a swipe tag, shortstop Chloe Blantz dropped Karissa Hirt's throw, but recovered in time to gun down Craddock as she tried for third.
L-S broke through into the scoring column in the fifth as Platt and Brooke Zuber worked walks. Ally Raub bunted them over and Julia Gerard plated Platt with a ground ball to the second baseman.
Springfield turned up the heat again in the bottom of the inning. Skyler Poemmer walked and was sacrificed to second by Condi, turning the lineup over.
Middleton went 2-0 to Craddock, came back to strike her out looking on a curveball, then got Cara Utter looking at a screwball. "I was just catching the corner," Middleton said. "They weren't swinging at that pitch all game."
Middleton's margin for error grew to a comfortable size in the sixth inning as the Pioneers posted four runs, batting around, plus one.
Blantz and Frank singled to open the attack. Squaring to sacrifice, Cam Byler caught the defense off guard as she pulled back and slug-bunted into short left to load the bases.
Ciasullo hit Middleton in the foot to force a run and the base-at-a-time carousel continued. Platt singled in Frank, Zuber took a fastball in the middle of the back to force in Byler and Raub singled home courtesy runner Morgan Whitaker. The Cougars got the next three outs, but the damage had been done.
Byler, who had been uncharacteristically unsteady in the field early on, regained form as the outs counted down. She made a nifty unassisted double play in the sixth, snaring Ciasullo's soft liner and stepping on the bag to double off Heston. In the seventh, her trademark stretch on Blantz's sizzling throw got Poemmer by a lash, signaling the end of the game.
"It was sort of a strange beginning," Charles said. “Defensively, we were terrible. It ended up well, because, we won!"