MARION CENTER — All it took was one pitch.
For Blairsville, that one pitch was a mistake, but for Marion Center, that pitch might have handed the Stingers the Heritage Conference softball title.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, Laken Ryen drove a 2-0 pitch over the center field fence for a three-run home run to lift Marion Center to a 4-2 victory over Blairsville on Monday.
Before that pitch, the Bobcats were leading 2-1, and before that pitch, Ryen hadn’t seen one to hit all game.
“The whole game, we walked Ryen and (Megan) Risinger,” Blairsville coach Frank Harsh said. “We didn’t give them anything to hit. We had two balls there, and I should’ve called it. I just had confidence that maybe we could get her out. But we should’ve walked her. … That was our strategy coming in.
“I should’ve kept to my guns, and I told the girls that it’s my fault. I made the call, and we could’ve walked her if I wanted to.”
The Stingers, on the other hand, walked away with a crucial win in their quest for their first Heritage Conference title. The two teams entered the game with one conference loss apiece.
Marion Center (14-1, 11-1) still has two league games to play, while Blairsville (13-2, 12-2) concluded its conference schedule. The Stingers, who crushed the Bobcats 11-2 last Monday, have to win a doubleheader today at Northern Cambria to clinch the title.
“The two games we have tomorrow are big,” Marion Center coach Ed Peterson said. “We have to win those ones, then we can win the conference. … We’ve never won. The last time we’ve won any championship in softball was back in the Appalachian Conference 30-some years ago.”
In what was otherwise a pitchers’ duel, Marion Center’s Samantha Frye walked to start off the bottom of the sixth. Two batters later, Olivia Riley singled to right, and two batters after that, Ryen connected on the eventual game-winner.
“That’s what I was hoping for,” Ryen said. “I was praying for a strike all game, and I finally got one. Luckily, that’s the one I needed.”
“We were hoping to get a few base runners on,” Peterson said. “It’s the same thing we did the last two times we played Blairsville — just get base runners on. I thought if they wanted to walk Megan and Laken and give us seven base runners, we’re going to take it. It worked out for us. They gave her a pitch she could hit, and you saw what happened there.”
Risinger pitched a complete game for the Stingers, striking out 15 strikeouts and walking walk. Riley added a double for Marion Center, which left seven runners on base.
“When it’s game time, Megan wants the ball,” Peterson said. “We feel very comfortable with her on the mound. She’s going to be around that strike zone, and she doesn’t give up many walks. … When it’s crunch time, we’re very happy to have her in the circle for us.”
The Bobcats’ Emilie Okopal took the loss, striking out six and walking four. Abbie Okopal and Emily Small finished with two hits each for Blairsville.
“We didn’t play very well,” Harsh said. “We were ready to play, and it’s Emilie’s last conference game. I wanted to see her picture up on the wall with a conference championship for her and the team. But things didn’t work out, and we made one bad pitch, and I take the blame for that.”
Marion Center took a 1-0 lead in the first inning when Katie Dotts hit an RBI single that scored Karlie Snyder. The Bobcats didn’t get rattled, though, and took a 2-1 lead in the third. Abbie Okopal reached on an infield single, Abby Peace walked, and they scored on an error when Shelby Oswald hit a ground ball to short.
“You just have to get the outs and then go back in there and try to get the runs back,” Risinger said. “Every time we went in the dugout, we tried to get all pumped again. We were fine, and didn’t get nervous.”
Blairsville finishes out its regular season today at home against Derry in a non-conference game. Both teams will play in the District 6 Class AA playoffs on Thursday. The Stingers received the No. 3 seed and will play host to Cambria Heights, and the sixth-seeded Bobcats will welcome Bishop McCort.
“We played Cambria Heights earlier in the season and beat them 5-1,” Peterson said. “That was a good draw for us. We have 16 teams in Double-A, so three out of 16 isn’t too shabby.”
“I’m proud of the girls,” Harsh said. “We’ve had a good season. We’re looking forward to (playoffs), but this is really disappointing. I thought we had a really good chance to win this game, but it was just one pitch. One pitch.”