Penn Charter freshman Ayanna Matthews (left) crosses first base, but the ump ruled that Episcopal’s Kate Ortlieb (right) already had the ball in her mitt. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Doing all of its scoring in the bottom of the first thanks to freshman Nikki Ray’s two-run shot over the fence in right center, host Penn Charter clung to the lead for the next six innings to down visiting Episcopal Academy last Friday, 2-1.

The outcome secured at least a share of the 2013 Inter-Ac championship for the Quakers. They improved to 10-0 in league play, and the next two teams below them in the standings, Episcopal and defending champ Agnes Irwin, each have two losses already. Even if PC (15-4 overall) somehow dropped its last two league games, the best either of the other title contenders could do would be to tie for the championship.

One of the two remaining games for the Quakers is against last-place Baldwin, but Charter won’t be taking the Bears lightly, because they were the team responsible for Agnes Irwin’s lone league loss in 2012. Those same Irwin Owls are the other opponent left on the docket for PC; in the first round of league play, the Quakers defeated Irwin, 9-6, and beat Baldwin, 18-1.

Although Episcopal out hit Charter 9-5 last Friday, PC’s pitchers and fielders made sure that all of that offense translated into just a single run, which came at the top of the second. Senior Jess Drossner (1K, 0BB, 5H) started in the pitching circle, and sophomore Kayla Quinn (1K, 0BB, 4H) entered for the start of the fourth inning and finished the game.

Last Friday’s Episcopal encounter was originally supposed to be PC’s last home game (the upcoming Baldwin bout had been rescheduled from April), so the Quakers had arranged to celebrate their Senior Day when they hosted the EA Churchwomen. The graduating class consists of Drossner, infielder Rachael Garnick, outfielder Molly Mornhinweg, and Nicole Weitz, who has played infield, outfield, and even catcher this season.

With many of the same players, PC had finished fourth in the league in 2012, and after last Friday’s win, longtime head coach Donald “Doc” Mittica addressed the reasons for this season’s success.

“One of the biggest things was that the seniors really improved from last year,” he said. “Jess has been very controlled with her pitching and she became a better hitter, and Rachael is getting a good base hit for us in just about every game. Molly stepped up and took over the three spot in the order, and Nicole’s playing well at first base and in right field.”

Referring to ninth-graders Ray (first or third base), Eileen Hennessy (shortstop), and Devon Loftus (left field), Mittica continued, “We also had some nice freshmen come in who didn’t play like freshmen. They’re experienced travel team players and they play like it.”

Another ninth-grader, Ayanna Matthews, is primarily a basketball player, but she fit right into the mix out on the softball diamond.

Thirdly, Mittica mentioned, “Another major plus for us is that our two pitchers have been giving up very few walks this season.”

Tenth-grader Quinn, in particular, has increased her accuracy, and in a 7-0 Inter-Ac win against Notre Dame back on May 1, she pitched the first perfect game in Penn Charter softball history. When her team counted on her to shut the door on the EA Churchwomen last Friday, she was ready to tackle the task.

Speaking of the previous week’s perfect game, she said, “It definitely gave me confidence. I’ve usually had a lot of walks, and it feels good to be getting the control part of it down. Just focusing more, working with my new pitching coach, and just having more experience helped me. I was happy that I didn’t walk anyone today.”

In the top of the first, EA’s number two hitter doubled off Drossner, but the Churchwomen couldn’t advance her from there. PC’s first baserunner, on base with an error to lead off the bottom half, was thrown out trying to steal second. However, Charter junior Kristina Kubach singled to shallow right field and reached second on a ground-out by Mornhinweg. It was then that Ray clubbed her two-run homer, accounting for all of the Quakers’ scoring for the afternoon.

With a walk drawn by Drossner and a single lined to left field by Hennessy, PC threatened again, but a strike-out ended the inning.

The Churchwomen got after it at the top of the second, beginning with two hits before the third batter lined out. Visiting senior Caroline Giles sent the ball deep down the right field line for a double, scoring one run and setting up runners on second and third. As it turned out, Episcopal would be unable to tie the game, either here or afterwards. The next two batters popped up and lined out, but PC’s lead had been reduced to a single point.

In their next two turns on offense, the Quakers only had seven batters appear, with Mornhinweg walking on in the third but never getting past second base. With one out in the top of the third, EA had sophomore pitcher Alex Viscuci line a single into left field. After stealing second, she went to third on a ground-out, but didn’t score.

When the Churchwomen next came up to bat, in the fourth frame, they faced a different pitcher for the home team. Charter had put in Quinn for Drossner.

Coach Mittica said of the switch, “Jess was pitching well – she only gave up one run – but they were kind of hitting her and I felt we needed to show them something different, a change of pace. It worked out, and we also had some great defense to help get us through.”

PC dispatched the next five Episcopal hitters, then with two outs in the fifth, glancing contact made by EA’s Taylor Long sent the ball dribbling down the third base line for a single. When Viscusi’s bat collided with the ball it was quite a different story; in almost life-threatening fashion it rocketed straight at the Quakers’ Ray, who had moved from first to third base when PC made its pitching change. The ninth-grader never flinched, just cleanly fielded the ball and secured the out to retire the side.

Unfortunately for a nervous home crowd, the Quakers were never able to acquire an insurance run. They went down in order in both the fifth and sixth innings before EA’s Viscusi, who finished with eight strike-outs and two walks in six innings of work.

“This was very good softball,” Mittica stated. “Episcopal played very well, and [Viscusi] pitched a great game.”

Working with such a slim lead in a low-scoring affair wasn’t easy for Quinn, and she said later, “I tried to clear my mind, not think about the score of the game and just do what I know how to do. I just wanted to throw strikes and let the fielders make the plays, because I knew I had a good defense behind me.”

At the top of the sixth, EA had a runner on third with two outs when Giles, who had driven in the run back in the second inning, hit a relatively flat fly ball to left field, tending to left center. PC’s Loftus quickly fixed on the flight of the ball and dashed over to make the catch, and the 2-1 PC lead survived.

In the visitors’ final stint with the sticks, they started the seventh with pinch hitter Nina Pagano, a left-handed batter. Quinn got ahead 0-2, but Pagano kept her cool and waited out three balls for a full count. Quinn got the strike-out in the end, then fielded a grounder for the second out.

Episcopal’s Long, second in the order, hit the ball solidly between first and second. Playing second base for Charter, Garnick knocked the ball down behind the base path, limiting the damage to a single.

With one last chance on offense to help her own cause, EA hurler Viscusi popped the ball up very high but not very far. Charter shortstop Hennessy waited patiently below to make the game-ending grab as 1980’s generation PC parents echoed the sentiments of Dexys Midnight Runners: “Come on, Eileen!”

The ball smacked into the freshman’s glove and she held it, quickly surrounded by a happy band of Quakers.

“You need the ability, but you also need good chemistry, and this team has that,” Mittica said afterwards. “I think that our seniors, as a group, have kept everyone focused on our goal, which is to win a championship.”