By Tom Robinson, NEPASportsNation.com
STATE COLLEGE – In the quiet of their only timeout of the day, the Mid Valley infield called its shot.
On a day when the opponent’s costly error led to the game’s only run, the Spartanettes defense was not just error-free, but it, at times, bordered on spectacular.
Third baseman Madison Kizer turned her first 5-3 double play of the season as just one of 10 outs produced by the infield to back Chiara Zavislak’s first-inning run and Maranda Runco’s four-hit shutout and give Mid Valley its first state championship with a 1-0 victory over Juniata Saturday afternoon in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Class 3A softball final at Penn State’s Beard Field.
Shortstop Elise Larson, second baseman Kat Davis and first baseman Courtney Rebar also did their parts on a day when the District 6 champions had two runners on base three times, but never did manage to advance one to third.
Those infielders gathered together, meeting with coach Mike Piercy, Runco and catcher Mackenzie Adolfson as Juniata’s biggest threat unfolded in the top of the sixth, the one time the Indians had their two runners on with none out.
It may be a stretch to say they planned what is next, but they correctly anticipated the possible scenarios.
“I wasn’t surprised because when coach Piercy called that timeout, we were actually thinking game plan, we were thinking about what’s next,” Kizer said. “I said, ‘if I get the ball coach, I’m going to third, then I’m going straight for the batter’.
“I noticed that she might not be the quickest batter, so I knew I had a chance of getting her.”
Kizer was in front of the bag near the line when she fielded Sophia Smith’s sharply hit groundball.
“In the timeout, we talked about it and said, ‘if you get it, step on third and go to first’,” Piercy said, “and sure enough, there it was.”
It took Kizer about three steps to pivot and get to third base before firing across the diamond.
“We manifested it,” Runco said of knowing which bases to go to for the outs. “We said in the huddle, ‘go 3 then 1’.”
The preparation for what may have been the most important defensive play of a state championship season extended well beyond the thinking and talking in Saturday’s brief huddle in the circle.
“They’re top notch,” Piercy said. “When we have our infield and outfield routine, it’s fun to watch. Sometimes, I’ll catch the other teams just staring at them and watching them play.
“The seniors there are three-year starters and they’re terrific out there.”
Kizer, Davis and Rebar are the veteran infielders.
Larson, the sophomore shortstop, doesn’t bat, but still managed to have an impact.
“She’s an absolute gamer,” Piercy said.
Larson showed great range to her left and when the toughest of her plays up the middle led to one of her four assists being a high throw, Rebar went up and got it.
“I look up to my seniors,” Larson said. “They’re all seniors on the infield. It’s really just Mack (Adolfson) and I that are only sophomores.
“They have my back and I have theirs. I just have to do my job.”
For now, that is strictly defense.
“I know my role,” Larson said. “I’ve got my role.”
Davis smoothly handled grounders for the last outs of the fourth and sixth innings with a runner on each time.
Rebar’s putouts included handling eight throws from teammates and getting to a foul popup with two runners on in the second inning.
“I just saw their smiling faces,” Runco said. “After they made the plays, they were super excited. I was cheering them on.
“I know if they get the ball, they’re a very solid defense. They can make the plays.”
Runco needed their collective help more than usual, but the Villanova University commit capped the strong case she built for a second state Class 3A Player of the Year award by bringing the Spartanettes home in the top of the seventh.
Piercy and Runco’s teammates expressed that there was no surprise in Runco striking out all three batters in the seventh, giving her nine in the game.
“They were a really good hitting team,” Runco said. “And, their pitcher was also very good.
“She was very up in the zone. She has very good spin. She has good speed.”
Runco called Elizabeth Gaisior the best pitcher the Spartanettes faced this season and speculated that the junior lefty will “do very well” when she gets to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I level at Fordham.
Gaisior challenged Runco, holding her to a single in a 1-for-3 effort after Runco had received intentional walks in five of six plate appearances in the state quarterfinal and semifinal. She struck out 10 in six innings for a two-hitter.
After Runco’s hit, Gaisior faced just one batter over the minimum for the final 3 2/3 innings. By then, however, the damage had already been done.
Zavislak made the most of the only other hit. As the only Mid Valley batter to reach base in the first two innings, she never stopped running until she made it home.
The Spartanettes took advantage of the large college field with extra space in foul territory.
Zavislak’s slow roller up the third-base line was destined to be an infield single and drew a wild throw in an attempt to prevent that. With the right fielder coming forward as a backup, the throw sailed past first base and rolled all the way to the right-field wall in foul territory.
“When I first hit it, I thought it was foul,” Zavislak said. “ … Once I was getting there, I saw (first baseman Smith) kind of lunging for it and I saw that she didn’t get it.
“So I kept going and rounding second, I was looking at my coach at third and he told me to keep going.”
Rebar, looking back to the 5-3 loss to Mount Pleasant in the 2021 state final, helped make sure her teammate was prepared for that scenario.
“Courtney (Rebar) our first baseman, when we played here two years ago, she missed a ball and they scored a run off of it,” Zavislak said. “She knew to tell us that ‘if they miss a ball, it’s going go far’.
“So, I was thinking that and I’m really happy that she pointed it out because it really did help.”
Runco and the defense did the rest.
After Runco ripped through the seventh and eighth hitters in the Juniata lineup to begin the seventh inning, pinch hitter Mackenzie Lyter put up a fight, fouling off three straight 1-2 pitches.
With Lyter aggressively protecting the plate, Runco fooled her on a game-ending changeup.
“It just shows that all of our hard work paid off,” Runco said. “That last pitch, I threw a changeup and my changeups aren’t always consistent, but I just knew we could win the state championship after this pitch.
“I tried my hardest to get it there.”