WEIRTON - For the third time in four years, Wheeling Central Catholic and Cameron will be squaring off in the West Virginia Class A Region One softball semifinals Thursday on Lisa's Field at the J.B. Chambers Youth Sports Complex.
The defending champion Maroon Knights punched their ticket with a late offensive explosion that led to a 10-3 victory against Bishop Donahue in the Section One finale played Friday night at Starvaggi Park.
Brittany Miller continued her impressive second-half performance from the circle by tossing a three-hitter, striking out six and surrendering one walk. Miller also had a big game at the plate as she singled and doubled driving in four runs.
It was a big blast from Sarah Henry that put put the icing on the cake with her two-out grand slam that rocketed over the fence in left field in the bottom of the sixth inning.
The victory was the 15th straight by Rick Magruder's club, now 20-7 overall. The Maroon Knights turned in a perfect 3-0 record in the double-elimination sectional, eliminating Weirton Madonna on Wednesday before gaining back-to-back victories that ended a remarkable turnaround year for the Bishops.
''You're never happy with losing but our girls took some huge steps forward this season," Donahue coach Curt Mele pointed out. ''From four wins last year to 17 this year gives us something to build on. The best thing about that, is we have all 13 girls coming back next year. That does not guarantee anything. We're still a work in progress and these girls have to continue to work hard to get better."
Magruder was ecstatic about the solid pitching his team received from its senior ace. ''Brit's really pitching very well," Magruder said. ''I thought she threw a lot harder than she did (Wednesday). She was hitting her spots and throwing strikes. Hopefully, with a couple day's rest she will be ready to go in the regional.''
Before the Maroon Knights finally broke through to score 10 runs on 11 hits during the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, Miller was locked in a tight pitching due with Bishop Donahue's junior standout Andrea Guzek. Guzek struck out seven while walking two, and was in control of the Maroon Knights offense the first three innings when she allowed one hit and had another reach base on an error.
The Bishops got the initial run without the benefit of a hit in the top of the first. With one out, Abby Randolph got aboard on an error, advanced two bases on wild pitches and scored during a rare forceout at second base on a throw from Central right fielder Joni Zavolta to shortstop Sydney Bennington.
With runners on first and third after Miller issued her only walk to Beth Wolfe, Guzek hit a grounder into right field for what normally would have been a single but Zavolta, playing shallow, got to the ball quickly and delivered a strike to nip Wolfe at second base.
Ironically, a similar play occurred in the third inning when Morgan Carroll's grass burner into right field was picked up by Zavolta, whose throw to first was in time to retire the runner.
The Bishops took the 1-0 lead into the bottom of the fourth but Central loaded the bases with none out as Vanessa Saseen and Ashley Gast singled, while Bennington was hit by a pitch. Miller's ground ball between short and third found the hole into left field as both runners scored, putting the Maroon Knights ahead 2-1.
Central got five straight hits in the bottom of the fourth to extend the lead to 6-1. Saseen's double got things rolling and she scored when Gast singled to center. Bennington then got aboard with a base hit and Miller's liner to left went for a double and two more RBI. This was followed by Henry's run-scoring single.
Bishop Donahue, denied a run in the fifth inning when Central's Bri Robbins raced in from her center field spot to field Tess Fallova's one-hop single and threw to the plate to cut down Ali Bauer, finally got a pair in the next frame. Wolfe's single, a wild pitch and two consecutive Maroon Knights errors cut the deficit to 6-3.
However, with two out and nobody on in the last of the sixth, Gast doubled, Bennington picked up her second base hit and Miller walked to load the bases. Henry then stepped up and crushed a Guzek pitch for a grand slam on a ball that took just a couple of seconds to clear the fence in left field.
''Sarah asked where I wanted her to hit the ball," Magruder said as a smile crossed his face. ''I told her that I didn't care, just hit it hard. And she did."
Although the Knights were charged with four errors, they still had one more sparkling defensive play to turn in during the top of the seventh. Bauer had a potential extra-base hit taken away when Central left fielder Emily Wizba raced toward the foul line, stuck out her glove and found the ball.
''We battled back when it was 6-1 and were right in the game until the Henry hit the grand slam," Mele said. ''I'm very proud of the way my girls played the whole year. We got beat by a good team and I wish Central luck in the regional and the state tournament if they are able to make it.''
Magruder's thoughts were on the upcoming clash with Cameron.
''They got us once in the regional and we got them once," he said. ''I just told our girls that we have to be ready to come out and play a solid game."