By Rob Tucker
Special to the OBSERVER
QUEENSBURY - Unfortunately for the Pine Valley faithful on hand, there was to be no upset this time around.
Pine Valley’s Alex Bentham drills a triple in the third inning of a NYSPHSAA Class D semifinal softball contest.
The Lady Panthers saw their splendid run come to an end on Saturday at the hands of Fort Ann, 5-2 in the New York?State Public High?School?Athletic Association Class D softball semifinals.Fort Ann, which heading into the tournament was ranked No. 2 in the state by the New York Sportswriters Association, went on to win the title by an identical score over Afton, of Section 4, late Saturday afternoon.
The Lady Panthers committed three errors in the loss - accounting for two of the five runs - but its real difficulties came at the plate against Fort Ann starter Molly Bailey, and the defense behind her.
"They're defense really (hurt us)," Pine Valley assistant coach Mark Mansfield said. "Their shortstop, their second baseman and their whole infield is just it just didn't make a mistake. We hit the ball hard, and they made the plays perfectly. (Fort Ann) didn't help us at all."
While the defense committed just one error, Bailey, who at one point retired 13 of 15 Pine Valley hitters she faced, scattered two runs on five hits and one walk with two strikeouts to earn the victory.
"I think we played all right," Pine Valley coach Danielle Arnone said. "We had a couple of errors, but we were really just hoping those bats were going to get going a little more than they did."
The Lady Panthers did manage three extra-base hits, including Alex Bentham's third-inning triple to right field in which she came all the way around to score when Fort Ann's second baseman misfired on the throw to third. But of those extra-base hits, only one came with runners already on base.
Fort Ann, meanwhile, got off to a quick 2-0 start in the first inning as leadoff-batter Kara White walked, moved to second on a sacrifice and then scored on Kayla Bancroft's triple into the right-centerfield gap.
Bancroft, a power-hitting shortstop with a solid glove, would score later that inning on a Pine Valley fielding error.
The Lady Panthers, as per usual, showed fight, and bounced back in the bottom half of the frame with a run of their own. Ashley Carpenter singled through the gap between short and third base and then, immediately following, Nichole Rinehart ripped a double into left field.
But Bailey, who carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning during Fort Ann's regional contest, buckled down from there - with the help of some solid defense behind her - and escaped the frame with a 2-1 lead.
Pine Valley starter Jessica Wilcox, so crucial to the Lady Panthers' run this season, made easy work of the Lady Cardinals in the second, but stumbled in the third as two errors and a single allowed the eventual winners to push their advantage to three, 4-1.
Pine Valley scored once more (on the aforementioned Bentham triple/error), but wouldn't threaten again as Fort Ann never trailed in the contest.
Despite the disappointing outcome, however, it was an outstanding season for a squad that, by most accounts given its 4-8 league mark heading into the sectional playoffs, wasn't supposed to get this far.
According to Arnone, however, the Lady Panthers, who finished 9-9 overall, showed the power of positive thinking in reaching their first state tournament since the 2005 season.
"From the beginning, Mark and I have said to the girls that they were championship material," said Arnone, who with this loss brought her first season at the helm of the Lady Panthers to a close. "I know our season and our record didn't show it, but deep down we felt it and we've been preaching that all season long."
And with a solid core returning - only three of the 12 Lady Panthers on this year's roster are seniors - it won't be surprising to see them making their way to the Capital region yet again next time around, especially with young standout Wilcox in the circle.
Despite the loss, Wilcox performed admirably, spinning a two-hitter with six strikeouts and three earned runs. She walked five.
"She's learned a lot (this season)," Arnone said. "She's done a phenomenal job for us and we couldn't have got here without her. She was definitely a little spark for the team that was needed and I look forward to seeing what she's going to do (in the future).
"Really everybody has pulled (their weight) this year," she finished. "People have made plays from all positions, so it's been a great team."