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
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.’’
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.
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.
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.