BALDWIN – Close calls are OK for action movies and shaves, but when it comes to WPIAL softball playoff games, most teams prefer a laugher.
But Michele Moeller, the head coach of defending state champion Canon-McMillan, thought the nail-biter the Big Macs had against North Allegheny on a bright Monday afternoon at Baldwin High School was a good thing.
Good, because it gave the Big Macs a taste of what they will surely face in future Class AAAA playoff games.
Good, because games such as these tend to make players focus more, an important aspect considering the Big Macs were coming off an 11-day layoff.
And good, because Canon-McMillan was on the right side of a 3-1 score in this quarterfinal game.
The victory over North Allegheny, the third straight by the Big Macs over the Tigers in the last two postseasons, moves Canon-McMillan into the semifinals against Latrobe Wednesday at a site to be determined.
North Allegheny, which fell to Canon-McMillan in last year’s WPIAL finals, 5-2, finishes the season with a 16-5 record.
Canon-McMillan, the two-time defending WPIAL champion, scored three runs in two other games this season, one a 15-3 loss to Baldwin April 7; the other a 3-1 loss to Alexander Central, a powerhouse from Taylorsville, N.C.
“It was huge,” said Moeller of the close game. “We haven’t played a lot of these games. It was huge for us to have a pitching battle and a defensive battle.”
North Allegheny outhit Canon-McMillan, 8-7, but the Big Macs made some crucial plays in the field, and Moeller made some coaching decisions that turned the game.
The first one came in the second inning and produced one of the three runs. Gia Zeremenko, who played with a sprained right ankle sustained in practice, opened the inning with single to right field. Amanda Stranges came in to pinch run and was sacrificed to second by Allison Bellaire. Tara Fowler grounded out, moving Stranges to third. That brought Ashley Buggey to the plate, and she swung at the first offering by NA starter Madi Beining and missed. Moeller called time and replaced Buggey with Taylor Bruno.
“She missed a practice, and we have a rule that if you miss a practice, you don’t start,” said Moeller. “I wanted to see Buggey take a cut and she looked a little bit behind.”
Bruno took a pitch off her arm and was awarded first base. Jada Kemp, who came into the game with one RBI this season, doubled that number when she laid down a bunt that scored Stranges and got her to first base with a single.
“She was a right-handed batter, but we flipped her because she has speed,” Moeller said.
That brought up leadoff batter, Linda Rush, who has 10 of the Big Macs 49 home runs this season. Rush sent a liner into the right-centerfield gap for a double that scored Bruno and Kemp and gave the Big Macs a 3-0 lead.
“Our coaches went to one of (North Allegheny’s) games before and knew their pitcher threw inside a lot,” Rush said. “I expected an inside pitch, but it was outside. So I just went with it.”
That left Fowler, the right-handed starter, to hold the lead. North Allegheny put runners in scoring position in the final four innings but managed just one run.
With two on and two out in the fourth, Fowler got Emily Logan to fly out to center; with two on and no out in the fifth, Fowler induced Beining to hit into a double play. Later in the inning, Laura Cotter drove in North Allegheny’s only run with a double but was caught in a rundown and tagged out at third for the final out of the inning.
“Defensively, if you told me we would hold (Canon-McMillan) to three runs, I would have taken it,” said NA coach Rick Meister. “I thought we played at their level.”
A critical call in the sixth inning was reversed after Moeller protested. Mary Funderlich hit a grounder to Rush at shortstop and her throw was a little off line. Funderlich was ruled safe by the first base umpire, believing Makenzie Jacobs’ foot left the bag. But Moeller asked him to check with the home plate umpire who had a better view. Funderlich was called out. The call was important because Fowler gave up singles to the next two batters before getting out of the inning on a fly ball to center.
North Allegheny put the first two runner on in the seventh, but Fowler got the next three outs to end the game.
“We had our opportunities,” Meister said. “We just didn’t take advantage of them.”