BLAIRSVILLE — Longtime Ligonier Valley softball coach Mark Zimmerman has certainly played a central role in the Rams’ remarkable run of collecting Heritage Conference titles.
But even with the ingenuity and passion he adds, Zimmerman admits that without superb four-year players like Maddy Grimm and Hailey Umbaugh, his program could have never reached such great heights.
With Grimm and Umbaugh naturally spearheading the charge, Ligonier Valley won its sixth straight conference crown, manufacturing five runs — the first two off of suicide squeezes involving Grimm — and outshining Blairsville in a pitcher’s duel for a 5-0 win in a Heritage Conference game Tuesday.
Two years ago, Grimm, a sophomore at the time, belted a grand slam and finished 3-for-4 with two runs scored to power the Rams past Marion Center for their fourth straight conference title.
“Maddy, Jackie (Berry), Hailey, and Bre (Wallace), those girls have all been there, and they’re starting their last run,” Zimmerman said. “It really has been a pleasure and I’ve had some good groups of girls. You don’t win that many championships without good players and we’ve been blessed with a lot of good players here.”
Both teams qualified for the District 6 Class AA playoffs. The third-seeded Bobcats (13-2), who won their first 12 games before dropping two of their last three, will play host to 14th-seeded Huntingdon on Thursday. Ligonier Valley (13-3), the No. 10 seed, travels to seventh-seeded Bald Eagle Area on Thursday.
Grimm, a senior who will attend Kent State University in the fall, set the tone for the Rams early by singling off Blairsville ace Emilie Okopal in the top of the first inning.
Two batters later, and with Grimm on third, Wallace laid down a bunt for a suicide squeeze attempt. Grimm timed Okopal’s windup perfectly and scored in the knick of time on Wallace’s bunt to give Ligonier Valley a 1-0 lead.
“We were close on the play but they were able to execute. Hats off to them. They did it twice,” Blairsville coach Frank Harsh said.
Just like she did in the first inning, Grimm singled off Okopal and advanced to third in the fifth.
With Wallace again in the batter’s box, and in a gutsy move, Zimmerman singled for another suicide squeeze bunt.
In a sequence that screamed d￩j￠ vu, Grimm got a quick jump off third and narrowly beat Okopal’s throw and Sam Harsh’s tag at the plate.
Wallace scored later in the inning on a throwing error from Blairsville to make it 3-0. Courtney Frappier singled on the next at-bat, and then scored on a one-out sacrifice fly from Brittney Lynch to stretched Ligonier Valley’s lead to 4-0.
An inning later, Berry made it 5-0 when she walked and then scored on a bases-loaded walk from Rachel Wallace.
Umbaugh, in the meantime, fired a five-hitter, striking out six and walking just one. Umbaugh only allowed two Blairsville base runners to reach third base.
“We just came in knowing that we really wanted to play Blairsville again to set the record straight,” Umbaugh said. “We all came in with clear heads and we all knew what we wanted to get done. Everything just came together.”
Just a day removed from the Rams’ bizarre 14-12 win over Northern Cambria — a game in which Ligonier Valley surrendered 10 runs in the sixth inning — Grimm influenced her teammates to maintain a positive attitude in a pressure-packed scenario.
“That was a very bad inning,” Grimm said with a chuckle. “But when we get down there’s no sense at yelling at the girls. It’s a team sport and everyone’s responsible. I just told them to keep their spirits up and to have fun. I knew that would keep the pressure off us and help us do what we’re capable of doing.”