CRESSON — When it comes to late-season, win-or-go-home, high-stakes softball games, every pitch and every play is magnified.
The teams that deliver most in those pressure-packed situations, more times than not, advance to play another day.
Tuesday afternoon, that team was Penn-Trafford. And it cost Donegal its season.
Morgan Nedley and Emma Armstrong delivered clutch two-run hits, the Warriors made a couple of key defensive plays, and reliever Mia Smith pitched two scoreless innings to slam the door as P-T edged the Indians 5-4 in a PIAA Class 5A state semifinal showdown at Mount Aloysius College.
Donegal not only was denied a shot at Friday’s state championship game, but the Indians missed out on a chance to get another shot at longtime Lancaster-Lebanon League rival Lampeter-Strasburg, which beat West Chester East 5-2 in Tuesday’s other 5A semifinal.
P-T (22-2) will take on defending champ L-S at 4 p.m. Friday at Penn State’s Beard Field for state gold. Donegal, the 2017 5A state champ, finished up its season 24-3 overall.
“I’m proud,” said Indians’ ace righty Sierra Neiss, who scattered eight hits with eight strikeouts against P-T. “I’m definitely not mad about how we played. I’m proud of how our season went, because a lot of people said we wouldn’t make it this far. And we did.”
Donegal coach Wayne Emenheiser concurred.
“Nobody expected us to do what we’ve done,” the Indians’ skipper said. “In years past, when we had the Yoders and the Robinsons, everyone expected us to win. So to get to this game was amazing. We did this with just four returning starters.”
Donegal, the District Three runner-up and L-L League Section Three champ, had leads of 2-0 and 4-3 against P-T. But the game hinged in the top of the fifth, when the Indians couldn’t scratch out any runs, despite a fantastic opportunity.
Aysha Gibbs, Steph Reider and Neiss hit consecutive singles to open the frame, and Donegal, down 5-4, had the bases loaded and no outs against P-T righty Megan Hilty.
But Hilty dug in and fanned Madeline Gohn for the first out. Then Jordynn Park — who slammed a two-run double earlier in the game — hit a one-hopper to short, and Nedley fired home to force out Gibbs. With two outs and the bases still jammed, Hilty uncorked a wild pitch. But catcher Carlee Lamacz recovered quickly and fed Hilty, who tagged out Reider at the plate to escape the pickle.
“You’re not going to get a hit there every time,” Emenheiser said. “That inning was tough. We could have done some things differently; you’re always going to second-guess yourself there.”
Smith relieved Hilty to open the sixth, and she retired all six batters she faced to earn the save. Donegal pounded out 11 hits and had 13 base-runners in all, but couldn’t push across the go-ahead run late.
Reider gave Donegal a quick 2-0 lead in the top of the first. With Gibbs aboard with a one-out single, Reider walloped a two-run homer over the fence in dead center.
But P-T knotted it in the bottom of the first when Nedley’s perfectly placed bunt plated Madison Forsythe and Armstrong, who both singled.
P-T, the District Seven third-place finisher under coach Denny Little, and back in the PIAA playoffs for the first time since 1990, took a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the second when Jess Lichota roped a leadoff double, and she eventually came around on a wild pitch.
Park put Donegal back in front in the top of the third. With courtesy runner Lauren Stwalley and Gohn on base, Park rocketed a double to the fence in left to clear the bases and the Indians were up 4-3.
But Armstrong’s two-run single in the bottom of the fourth put P-T ahead for good.
“It was an up and down kind of a game,” Neiss said. “I try and treat every game the same. You do your best and you try and stay in the moment and do the best you can. I thought we all did that.”
But the Indians came up tantalizingly short, and just missed out on a gold-medal matchup against L-S.