Fi­nals fix­ture: Williams Val­ley re­turns to PIAA soft­ball ti­tle game

Williams Val­ley, West Greene meet for 3rd straight sea­son in to­day’s PIAA Class A cham­pi­onship game

The Republican Herald - - FRONT PAGE - By BOB lIPsky stAFF Writer

TOWER CITY — For 25 years, Williams Val­ley strug­gled to reach the PIAA soft­ball fi­nals.

Along the way, the Vik­ings won District 11 cham­pi­onships. They won state play­off games. But they never made it all way to the ti­tle game.

Year af­ter year, the sting­ing losses cut deeper and op­por­tu­ni­ties be­came lost for­ever. In 2013, all of that changed. Not only did Williams Val­ley reach the state fi­nals, but the Vik­ings also cap­tured the gold. Com­ing in as a de­cided un­der­dog against the de­fend­ing Class AA cham­pion, Williams Val­ley stunned Ne­shan­nock 13-0 in 6 in­nings to win the PIAA Class A cham­pi­onship at Penn State Univer­sity’s Nit­tany Lion Soft­ball Park.

“From that point on we be­lieved we could be there every year,’’ Williams Val­ley coach Ryan Un­derkof­fler said.

The 2013 Vik­ings proved that, yes, a small school tucked away near the Schuylkill/Dauphin county border can reach the pin­na­cle of Penn­syl­va­nia soft­ball. They proved that, yes, a group of ded­i­cated girls from Tower City, Wil­liamstown and other ham­lets in the Val­ley can go all the way.

So the Vik­ings have — over and over and over again, gone back to the state fi­nals.

To­day, back at Nit­tany Lion Soft­ball Park, Williams Val­ley (23-2) will com­pete in the Class A fi­nal for the third straight sea­son. Ac­cord­ing to PIAA records, the Vik­ings are the first Schuylkill League team to make the state fi­nals three years in a row.

The op­po­nent will be a fa­mil­iar one, District 7 cham­pion West Greene (23-4), which

is also mak­ing its third straight trip to the Class A ti­tle game.

Williams Val­ley pulled out a 3-2 vic­tory over the Pi­o­neers in 2016. Last sea­son, West Greene ral­lied for a 9-8 win over the Vik­ings.

And at 11 this morn­ing, they’ll meet for a third straight sea­son.

“That’s al­most un­heard of,’’ Un­derkof­fler said. “To have the same teams, it’s amaz­ing.’’

In the sin­gle-elim­i­na­tion for­mat of the District 11 and PIAA post­sea­son, one loss, some­times one bad in­ning, ends a team’s sea­son. Williams Val­ley had been through that nu­mer­ous times dur­ing the 1990s and early 2000s.

To over­come every ob­sta­cle on the way to Penn State for three straight sea­sons is noth­ing short of re­mark­able. Si­t­u­a­tions change, play­ers change, play­ers grad­u­ate.

Once you get a taste of cham­pi­onship gold, once you be­lieve it’s pos­si­ble for you, too, the hunger grows. The fresh­men and sopho­mores on this year’s team were in el­e­men­tary school when Williams Val­ley won its first state ti­tle. They were in ju­nior high when the Vikes be­came a two-time state champ in 2016.

“They don’t want to let them­selves, their coaches, the com­mu­nity down,’’ Un­derkof­fler said. “They know what Williams Val­ley soft­ball is all about. They work hard. They’re ded­i­cated all sea­son long. They love the game. It’s in their blood, I be­lieve.

“They look back on all those teams in the past,’’ he added. “They want to be just like those girls.’’

They start ’em young at Williams Val­ley. Many times over the years, the Vik­ings var­sity play­ers and coaches have hosted a prac­tice for el­e­men­tary school kids in the district. Every young girl who par­tic­i­pates gets a buddy in the form of a high school player.

To­gether, they teach and learn the fun­da­men­tals of pitch­ing, hit­ting, throw­ing, catch­ing and run­ning the bases.

“Every time they come in they’re ex­cited,’’ Un­derkof­fler said. “Par­ents tell their kids to look at these (var­sity) girls. They’re role mod­els. They look for­ward to be­ing there.

“Our girls on the team love hav­ing the lit­tle girls there,’’ he added. “They re­mind them of their younger days. They as­pire to be these var­sity play­ers.’’

That’s how you build a pro­gram, one that sus­tains ex­cel­lence for more than a decade. Since win­ning their sec­ond District 11 cham­pi­onship in 2006, the Vik­ings have reached the District 11 fi­nal for 13 straight sea­sons — and count­ing.

And when these var­sity play­ers com­pete for cham­pi­onships, the com­mu­nity turns out in force to cheer them on.

“They line the streets, had fire trucks out, car­pool­ing for two-hour drives (to games),’’ Un­derkof­fler said. “Our Face­book has 1,450 mem­bers and is growing and growing. I know the girls ap­pre­ci­ate ev­ery­thing, the moral sup­port.’’

Be­yond all of the tra­di­tion and his­tory, there’s still a game to be played. Both the Vik­ings and Pi­o­neers re­turn most of their key play­ers from last year’s squads.

West Greene is known for its pro­lific of­fense that av­er­ages 10 runs per game. Williams Val­ley av­er­ages 11.3 runs per game.

West Greene outscored its three op­po­nents in states 29-6. Williams Val­ley won its three state games by a com­bined 27-5.

No­body’s go­ing to pitch a shutout against these teams. It’s a mat­ter of tak­ing ad­van­tage of every op­por­tu­nity and lim­it­ing the dam­age when the other team’s at the plate.

“We’re com­mon to each other. We know what to ex­pect: a high-oc­tane of­fense,’’ Un­derkof­fler said. “We have to hit with them, shut them down (when we can).

“We proved we can hang with them,’’ he added. “We know we can com­pete with them. It’s a mat­ter of play­ing our game and the best team will win.

“They have great tal­ent . ... We’re just as good as they are,’’ Un­derkof­fler con­tin­ued. “If we play our game, we have a very good chance. ... They’re go­ing to put runs on the board, and we’re go­ing to have to hang with them.’’

JAc­QUe­LiNe dorMer / stAFF PHo­toG­rA­PHer

Williams Val­ley catcher Grace Hoff­man tags out West Greene's Madi­son Ren­ner at home plate dur­ing last year’s PIAA Class A soft­ball cham­pi­onship game at Penn State Univer­sity’s Nit­tany Lion Soft­ball Park. The Vik­ings and Pi­o­neers will meet in the Class A ti­tle game for the third straight sea­son when they square off at 11 a.m. to­day in State Col­lege.

JAC­QUE­LINE DORMER / STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Williams Val­ley head coach Ryan Un­derkof­fler talks with pitcher Ste­vie Unger (25), catcher Grace Hoff­man and the rest of the in­field dur­ing the 2017 PIAA Class A soft­ball cham­pi­onship game against West Greene at Penn State’s Nit­tany Lion Soft­ball Park. The Vik­ings face the Pi­o­neers again in to­day’s state ti­tle game.

JAC­QUE­LINE DORMER / STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Williams Val­ley pitcher Ste­vie Unger and catcher Grace Hoff­man cel­e­brate an out dur­ing last sea­son’s PIAA Class A cham­pi­onship game against West Greene at Penn State’s Nit­tany Lion Soft­ball Park.

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