LORETTO - Central coach Dale Walters' goal when he took the job five years ago was to be a District 6 Class AA champion.
"I never gave it a thought that we could possibly make a run at a state championship," he said. "But after going through this year, I think we're pretty close."
Central captured the hearts of its fans and captured the attention of District 6 and the state by making it to the district championship and the PIAA state semifinals, where it lost to powerful Neshannock, 15-5, in five innings Monday at St. Francis University.
"This was by far my favorite season," junior pitcher Kylie Gunnett said. "I started as a freshman and a sophomore, and we only made it to the second round of districts both years, so this was amazing."
"This was an amazing season," senior center fielder Kate Blattenberger said. "I couldn't have asked for anything to go better, other than to get a couple more wins. We beat Philipsburg and Bald Eagle for the first time in history, and we made it this far for the first time in history. We made history."
Central served notice early when it beat Bald Eagle Area, 5-3, on March 23, and it it followed that with a 6-4 win over defending state champion P-O on April 13.
"They are the standard," Walters said of P-O and BEA. "They've got tradition. They've got great coaching. I think we've put our name up there at the top of the pole with them. From now on, people are going to have to recognize that Central is coming to play, and it's not going to be an easy game ever.
"Bald Eagle was one of our first games, and it gave us huge momentum and confidence in ourselves that we were at the top of our class," Blattenberger said, "and we can compete with just about anyone."
The Lady Dragons could make another state run next year. It won't be easy as P-O returns all but two starters, and the rest of the district will be putting a target on Central as a team to beat.
"I am looking forward [to next year]," Gunnett said. "We only lose two seniors [Blattenberger and Paige Mock], so hopefully we'll be back."
Gunnett, who will play travel ball for Walters this summer, will be counted on next year to make big pitches and make improvements in her game.
"One thing I know about Kylie is she'll work her rear end off for me, for herself and for her team," Walters said. "She's a worker. Maybe we need to get her a little stronger and working more on consistency. I think she'll be one of the better pitchers in the area.
"We just have to keep getting better. We've really learned how to win, and we've learned how to play in some big games, which we haven't had to do before. We want to hit better. We want to pitch better. We've got some ninth-graders coming next year who are going to help us. The future is bright for us."
A big loss
One big loss from the team is Blattenberger, the leader of the Lady Dragons who other teams learned to respect when she came up to hit. She took a .525 batting average and seven home runs into Monday's game.
"I'm really looking forward to see them play," Blattenberger said, "because a lot of them grew up this year. They're going to be set next year without me and Paige because they matured. Going this deep into states, they know what they have to do to get there."
"First of all, I'm going to miss Kate from a personal standpoint," Walters said. I've been coaching Kate since she was 9 years old, and she's just a super kid. She's the kind of kid you'd be proud to call your daughter. From a leadership standpoint, that's going to be huge shoes to fill for next year, and also from a talent standpoint."
Lancers create havoc
Walters called in some college players to help the Lady Dragons practice for Neshannock's college-type short game.
But nothing the Lady Dragons practiced or had seen this year got them ready for the pressure-inducing drag bunting and slap hitting. The Lady Lancers beat out almost every bang-bang play at first base, which were many.
"We're not used to four or five of their first six hitters being slap hitters," Blattenberger said. "I think we played one girl [during the regular season] who was a slap hitter, and she wasn't like them. We knew what we had to do, but even when we did it right, they made it on base because of their speed.
"I think two or three of them were outs. The umps gave a couple of them to the runners. I guess they were close enough to give it to them, but from my view in center field, they were out."