C-K relishes state final appearance

When the Claysburg-Kimmel softball team knocked off state power Neshannock, 5-4, in eight innings in the PIAA Class A semifinals, the team celebrated at Hempfield High, got on the charter bus and enjoyed the trip to Claysburg.

Once they got back around 9:30 p.m., the ride to the high school suddenly turned into a parade route, including a fire truck escort, and a large contingent of fans greeted and celebrated with the Lady Bulldogs.

Hey, making it to the state championship for the first time is something to celebrate, right?

“When we came back Monday, we had a huge crowd here in the parking lot,” senior pitcher Kiersten Coho said. “It was kind of overwhelming at first. Everyone was on the streets cheering for us as the bus drove by. The fire company escorted us. It was really cool. We had a good time coming home Monday. Our fans are with us all the way.”

“It’s nice that our whole community is backing us up,” senior right fielder Abby Kulick said. “The other night when we came home, there was literally 100 people along the road. It was amazing. Such a good feeling. I couldn’t be more proud and happy. It’s awesome.”

No doubt there will be a large contingent of C-K fans at Penn State’s Beard Field at Nittany Lion Softball Park at 3 p.m. today, weather permitting, when the Lady Bulldogs (22-4) take on District 11 champion and eight-time state champion Minersville (23-3) in the state title game.

Nerves will be on edge in the stands. Just think what the players will be feeling in such a big game before a big crowd.

“I’m pretty good with my nerves, but Friday I’m going to be nervous,” Kulick said. “Honestly, it would be amazing to win, but if we don’t win, I don’t know if I’m going to be that upset just because we made it that far. We made school history, so there’s nothing to hang your head about.”

“I’m nervous before every single game,” junior shortstop and tri-captain Hannah Claycomb said laughing. “So this is kind of like every other game. You just have to get out there and play our hardest and play our best.”

Just like in the last game, C-K appears to be the underdog going into this one. Three years removed from its last state title, Minersville have been blowing opposing teams away in the state playoffs, outscoring their foes, 35-6, with a lineup that has all nine batters hitting .341 or better, including freshman No. 2 hitter Adrienne Kroznuskie, who has a .616 average, nine home runs and 37 RBIs.

But the game won’t be played on paper, and the Miners have shown some chinks in the armor. One of their three losses was to Class AA finalist Central Columbia, 13-0.

“I don’t see us as the underdogs,” C-K coach Mike Barbarini said. “You get two teams that get to this point, there really isn’t an underdog. We’ve both played against teams that are very good, and we beat them along the way to get here. I don’t know how strong their league was. They don’t know how strong our league was. The games they did have against good pitchers were 2-1 or 2-0 games.”

“It’s a lot more motivation that everyone is counting us out,” senior catcher Mallory Cox said. “That’s how they’ve been looking at us the whole season. They didn’t think we would be as strong as we’ve proved ourselves to be. It definitely helps us, and it helps the community behind us

“We just have to go in open-minded and try to keep your nerves calm,” Kulick said. “I know that’s easier said than done. If we play our game, we’re pretty solid the whole away around as long as everybody has their head on straight.”

One advantage for C-K would be not having to travel too far for the game. The seniors have played at least one game at Penn State every year.

“We consider it another home field for us we’ve been there so many times,” senior second baseman Madison Ickes said.

“It’s just a whole different atmosphere from playing here at the high school,” Kulick said. “Considering we have played there once this year, the nerves may be calmed down a little bit.”

Other than local media visiting C-K’s field a couple times this week, nothing has changed their approach to the game, the Lady Bulldogs say.

“We’ve noticed that when we change our routine, it kind of messes us up,” Cox said. “We’re that team before a game we’re calm, and we like to have fun. Other teams are like upbeat and running around and stuff, but we’ve never changed.”

Coho (19-3, 176 strikeouts), coming off of one of the best pitching performances of her career against Neshannock, and her defense will be key in holding the Miners in check.

“I’m hoping Kiersten can pitch another game like she had the other day,” Barbarini said, “and we can compete.”

The Lady Bulldogs will look to score early against senior pitcher Riley Gerenda (14-3, 122 strikeouts) to give Coho some breathing room. Coho and freshman No. 5 hitter Keyara Morgan (.409) were the hitting stars in the semis, but No. 2 hitter Kulick leads the team in hits (44) and batting average (.518).

“The middle of our lineup is the stronger part of our lineup right now,” Barbarini said, “but different girls pick us up from game to game. There was a couple games there where the bottom of the lineup got on for the top of the lineup, and we scored some runs. We actually look for everybody to help us win.”

Seven of the Lady Bulldogs recently graduated, and now they’re playing in the state title game. It’s something they’ve dreamed about, possibly some lost confidence it could happen when they lost to Southern Huntingdon, 7-3, in the District 6 championship, but now it’s here.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Cox said. “It’s really special because we all grew up together playing, so it’s just night that this group of girls can go this far together.”

“I’m looking forward to the game. It can’t get here fast enough,” Barbarini said. “When you’re playing your season, you’re playing teams over and over, so you know what to prepare for. Here, you’re trying to find information about the other team and prepare for them.”

Oh, and what kind of party in Claysburg would the Lady Bulldogs return to if they won state gold?

“It will definitely be crazy,” Cox said. “When we came back from the past two games we’ve won, the whole community was up and excited. So, I don’t know how we’re going to be able to top it, but something crazy is going to happen.”

“It will be a first time for something like this for this community,” Barbarini said. “I don’t know what to expect. I’m sure there’s going to be a parade again. The community businesses have already called and said they’d like to purchase something for the girls, like T-shirts or something like that. There will probably be a picnic.”