SHADYSIDE - For the 11th time in 12 seasons, St. John Central has punched its ticket to the Division IV softball district tournament.
Thursday night, the top-seeded Irish (22-4) rallied past stubborn Bridgeport (11-17) by a 7-3 count in a sectional co-final.
''These girls have enjoyed a great season so far,'' veteran St. John coach Jerry Magistro said. ''For all that we've been through this season, these girls have really stepped up their games.''
Trailing 3-2 after 3 innings, St. John put together back-to-back impressive innings to win for the sixth consecutive outing.
Freshman Sydney Helms started the two-run fourth with a single up the middle. After she was sacrificed to second by Kristen Russell, Amber LaMotte slugged a run-scoring double to right-center to tie things at 3-3. Kyleigh Falcone's infield grounder made it two outs, but the throw to third trying to get LaMotte skipped away, allowing her to race home with what proved to be the game-winner.
St. John Central plated a trio of insurance runs in the fifth.
Hannah Absalom doubled to left leading off and scored on Kaydie Coppa's single to right-center. Young walked, and Helms did likewise with one out recorded to load the bases. Russell looped a single down the right-field line that scored Young and Gina Beekman, who had reached on a fielder's choice, making it 7-3.
Beekman, who came on to relieve Absalom to start the fifth inning, shut the Bulldogs down in their final three at-bats.
The senior retired nine of the 11 batters she faced.
''That doesn't surprise me about Gina,'' Magistro said. ''She's one of those players that will do whatever the team needs to win.''
Bridgeport took the early lead on Ashley Hadzima's two-run double to deep left in the first inning.
However, St. John Central answered right back as Coppa smacked a one-out solo homer to left-center. Russell's two-out infield single to the hole at short scored Rosa Young, who had drawn a walk.
Kallie Myers doubled to left-center with one-out in the Bridgeport third. Keri Renzler sacrificed her to third, but the throw to first sailed down the right-field line as Myers crossed the plate, giving the Bulldogs a 3-2 advantage.
''You can't fault these girls' effort,'' first-year Bridgeport coach Tom Joseph said. ''We came out ready to play and jumped on them right away, but they've got a solid lineup from top to bottom and I wish them the very best. I hope they go on and win the state.''
With the victory, St. John Central advances to Monday's 5 p.m. district semifinal in New Philadelphia against the state's No. 1-ranked team - Tuscarawas Central Catholic, which ousted Hiland, 6-4, on Thursday.
''We'll go and play them,'' Magistro said. ''We'll take our chances.''