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DUBOIS, Pa. – How could she miss it? It’s bright yellow, after all.
That what Punxsutawney freshman slugger Ciara Toven said in response to whether the softball was looking like a beach ball after she slugged a three-run home run in the second inning to help the now officially Cinderella Lady Chucks beat Cambria Heights, 6-4, in the PIAA Class 3A quarterfinals Thursday afternoon at Heindl Field in DuBois.
“Sometimes, I just look for it,” Toven said with a shrug of the shoulders. “Hey, it’s bright yellow.”
Toven’s home run, which came on a two-strike pitch with two outs in the second after Cambria Height pitcher Paige Jones, who had walked only eight all season, walked two in the inning. The bomb into the left-field bleachers gave Punxsutawney a 6-0 lead.
“They actually told me to move back in the box on that pitch,” Toven said. “I was father up than I should have been, and I hit it.”
The bomb came an inning after Punxsutawney had taken a 3-0 lead on three unearned runs in the first inning after Cambria Heights committed three errors in the inning. One of those errors came on a grounder by Maddie Shiock that scored a run, and Elliott Ferrent added a two-run single to left.
Those runs helped relax senior pitcher Kendal Johnston, who was a member of the Punxsutawney PIAA Class 4A state championship team in 2018 but did not pitch in the playoffs that season.
“That’s what I always tell the girls, just get me a lead because it feels so much better out there on the mound when you have runs behind you.”
The six runs were needed, because Cambria Heights, which entered the game 19-1 and winners of 16 in a row, including a 3-2 win over Bald Eagle Area in the D6 title game, didn’t go down quietly.
The Highlanders scored four times in the third inning to get back in the game taking advantage of an error on Punxsutawney shortstop Brooke Skarbeck to score the final two runs.
But that was all Johnston allowed, as she worked out of trouble in the fifth and didn’t allow a controversial call at the start of the seventh to affect here.
In the fifth, Central Cambria put runners on first and second with no outs with its three, four, and five hitters coming to the plate.
But Johnston got Karli Storm to fly out to center, Lexi Griak to pop out to second and Madison Bender to pop out to shortstop.
“I am just trying to give them something to hit for my defense to back me up,” Johnston said. “Just trying to get the ball moving a little bit.”
Johnston showed poise again in the seventh when Jones started the inning by reaching on an error on second baseman Sydney Hoffman that was, at least, mildly controversial as Punxsutawney thought Hoffman had got the ball off a throw when Jones bunted.
But Johnston got Ari Westrick to foul out to third, Karli Storm to fly out to right, and Griak to ground out to Skarbek at shortstop, as Skarbek stepped on second to force Jones setting off a celebration for the Lady Chucks.
“After that error, I just made sure the girls knew just stay calm,” Johnston said. “Don’t listen. Just do what you have to do. Get these next three outs, and they did.”
Those three outs sent Punxsutawney to perhaps its most improbable or at least unexpected appearance in the state semifinals.
The Lady Chucks entered the postseason two games under .500 at 8-10 and have been the underdog in all three of their postseason games.
“To be honest, no (I didn’t think we would be here),” Johnston said. “I honestly did not think we would come this far. But here we are. You have to make the best of it.”
Johnston and Toven have both been big reasons why Punxsutawney is in the state semifinals – the Lady Chucks will play the winner of the Mt. Pleasant-Avonworth game on Monday, June 14, at a site and time to be announced. The Mt. Pleasant-Avonworth game, at Norwin High School, was suspended by rain in the fourth inning with Mt. Pleasant leading 3-0. It will be resumed Friday.
Toven has hit three postseason home runs and also had the game-tying double in a win over WPIAL runner-up Ellwood City in the bottom of the seventh of the first-round game with two outs and Punxsutawney down a run.
“We have all gotten our hitting together,” Toven said. “And our fielding has been great, and our pitching, obviously, has been great.”
The pitching really has been good.
Johnston has given up just two earned runs in three postseason games while striking out 30, including six on Thursday when she allowed four runs, two earned, on six hits and a walk.
“I am just trying to do it for the team so we can make it as far as we need to,” Johnston said. “I am settled in now. I have pitched enough games. Now, I am ready to go forward.”
Watch the full postgame interview with Johnston and Toven, who were named the Co-Allegheny Grille of Foxburg Players of the Game.
While Johnston continued to pitch some of her best ball of the season, Jones struggled with control for the first time this season.
Coming into the game having walked just eight, Jones walked four Lady Chucks. She did get stronger as the game went on not allowing a run over her final five innings. But she still gave up six runs, three earned, on five hits while striking out 11.
Toven had two of those hits going 2-for-4 with two runs scored and three RBIs.
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