HOMER CITY — Determined to keep her team alive in the race for the Heritage Conference title, Blairsville’s Emilie Okopal mustered the most masterful performance of her standout career Saturday against Homer-Center.
Okopal fired a no-hitter, her second of the season, and scored the game’s lone run on a sacrifice fly in the first inning to lift the once-beaten Bobcats to a 1-0 win in a high school softball game at Floodway Park.
Okopal, a senior and hard-throwing right-hander, struck out 14, walked none and allowed just one base runner — Homer-Center’s Julia Buggey — who got hit by a pitch with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning.
She outdueled Homer-Center ace Abby Plowcha, who pitched a two-hitter in a losing effort. Plowcha struck out seven, walked none, surrendered no earned runs and allowed just seven base runners.
“We just came in knowing we had to win,” said Okopal, who tossed a perfect game in a win over Blacklick Valley in a game that was shortened to three innings due to the mercy rule on April 10. “We warmed up with more discipline today, and we were just more serious about this game.
“I really wanted this one because I knew with a win we could still beat Marion Center and get the conference title. We were just more pumped up than usual, and that made a big difference.”
Plowcha fielded a scorching Okopal grounder on the second at-bat of the game, only to throw errantly over her first baseman’s head to allow Okopal to reach base.
Okopal stole second base and advanced to third on a short fly ball off the bat of Abby Peace that second baseman Abby Yancy misplayed.
Cleanup hitter Shelby Oswald then clubbed a sacrifice fly to deep center field that scored Okopal for the game’s lone run.
“We didn’t really hit the ball,” Blairsville coach Frank Harsh said. “We surely didn’t get the clutch hits when we needed them. Thankfully we got that one run in the first, and that was all we needed.”
Okopal struck out the side in the first and fifth innings and fanned two of the three batters she faced in each of the second, third and seventh innings. Allison Kishlock and Plowcha each popped out to center field, and the remaining six outs came from ground balls.
“It was a great pitching duel,” Homer-Center coach Randy Thomas said. “Okopal faced one over the minimum, and that’s because we just couldn’t catch up to the ball all day. Give her credit: She moved it around and up and down, and she adjusted speeds. She just made it hard for us, and that’s what good pitchers are supposed to do.”
Okopal beaned Buggey in the foot with two outs in the seventh to end her bid for a perfect game.
A modest Okopal, who peppered the corners all day while mixing breaking balls, fastballs and offspeed pitches brilliantly, credited her defense for simplifying the task of shutting down a solid lineup.
“My defense was really behind me,” she said. “We didn’t make any errors, which definitely helped me buckle down and throw a better game. They were doing a good job behind me so I just focused on being disciplined and hitting my spots.”
Plowcha, meanwhile, allowed just five base runners after the first inning. Nichole Bendis was stranded on first base in the second inning, Bre McCully was left on first in the fourth, and Nicole Himes was stranded on first in the seventh.
Plowcha then escaped jams with Peace on second base in the third and Himes on second in the fifth.
Plowcha and Okopal each surrendered seven hits in the Bobcats’ 11-inning 6-5 win over the Wildcats in their first meeting on April 17.
“She’s a great pitcher, and I think that I’ve improved a lot and maybe I’m on her level now,” Plowcha said. “She threw a great game, but we should have been able to hit her. We were prepared for this. It was just a rough day, I guess.”
A day after committing nine errors in a 14-6 win over Penns Manor, the Bobcats made no errors, helping Okopal face just 22 batters.
Harsh talked about his team’s ability to bounce back defensively following Friday’s sloppy game.
“They were ready. I chewed them out real good yesterday,” Harsh said with a laugh. “It was a bit of a wake-up call against Penns Manor, and the girls knew how important this game was. Our next three games are just as important, too, so we’ve got to keep it up if we want a shot at the conference championship.”
Himes finished 2-for-3 to lead the Bobcats.
Both teams play Monday. Blairsville (9-1) travels to Northern Cambria, and Homer-Center (4-5) visits Purchase Line for a doubleheader.
Blairsville, which opened the week with an 11-2 loss to Marion Center, plays the Stingers on May 12 in a game that could decide the conference championship.