Penn Charter softball players and coaches pose with the 2015 Pa. Independent Schools championship plaque. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Penn Charter softball players and coaches pose with the 2015 Pa. Independent Schools championship plaque. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

This time, the Penn Charter softball squad wouldn’t let anything or anyone stand in its way. After falling short of capturing the championship plaque in the first four Pennsylvania Independent Schools tournaments, top-seeded Penn Charter seized it last Saturday at Villanova University, defeating number two Episcopal Academy, 2-1.

Scoring once in the third inning and once in the fourth, Charter was one out away from a shutout in the top of the seventh when an infield error allowed a runner on second base to come home. The Quakers then secured the final out and claimed the 2015 title.

In a battle between two senior pitchers, PC’s Kayla Quinn and Episcopal’s Alex Viscusi each struck out four batters and gave up four hits, while Quinn issued two walks and Viscusi handed out three passes.

The PC Quakers had been semifinalists in each of the four previous PAIS tournaments. When the event was launched in 2011, they went as far as the finals before losing to Abington Friends. Agnes Irwin, which had won the Inter-Ac League that spring, opted not to participate in the Indy Schools event the first time around.

Abington’s star then faded, and Irwin joined the tourney and reached the finals three years in a row.

During this stretch, AI pitcher Katie Wenger (’14) proved to be a puzzle that Penn Charter batters couldn’t solve. Mercersburg Academy eliminated PC in the 2012 PAIS semifinals, but in the following two seasons it was Wenger and her Owls who stopped the Quakers just short of the finals.

Irwin lost to Mercersburg in the 2012 championship game and then captured the title in 2013 with a 2-0 win over Episcopal. Since 2012, Episcopal had been building a formidable program around the intimidating arm of Viscusi, and in 2014, when the Princeton-bound pitcher was a junior, the Churchwomen broke through to win both the Inter-Ac League crown and their first PAIS title.

One useful function the PIAS tournament serves is to provide an opportunity for a third meeting between two Inter-Ac teams that have split their official home/away series in the league. The Quakers and the EA Churchwomen shared the league laurels this year with identical 11-1 records, each ball club winning by a score of 4-2 on the opponent’s field.

In the first contest, victorious Charter had been calm and focused at the plate, and defensively firm. PC gradually built a 4-0 lead, and Episcopal scavenged a pair of runs it its final turn at bat. That victory may have given the Quakers a little too much confidence, though.

For the rematch on May 15, longtime mentor Donald “Doc” Mittica noted, “We were a little too excited, too giddy.”

Junior shortstop Eileen Hennessy, co-captain of the team along with Quinn, concurred, relating “They came over to our place really loud, and we felt we had to match that, sort of make a contest out of it. That’s not really our style, and our approach was very different this time – we came in with quiet confidence, we played our game and did our job.”

Hennessy noted that in the regular-season loss, the Quakers hadn’t made some routine plays in the field, and Episcopal controlled the affair after taking a 3-0 lead in the first inning.

“Quiet confidence” was a catchphrase echoed by other PC players; it was something they had discussed in a 20-minute sit-down before practice on Friday afternoon.

Although PC was the higher seed in the PAIS tournament, it was a coin flip before the Saturday’s final that made the Charter the designated home team. As in the May 15 meeting with Episcopal, the Quakers got into trouble at the top of the first, but this time they would get out of it.

EA’s lead-off hitter for most of the season, junior Nina Pagano, had been sidelined with concussion symptoms, but the Churchwomen couldn’t have asked for much more from their first at-bat than the double that sophomore Arianna Pompeii directed to left centerfield. High pitches by Quinn then resulted in a walk to her opposite number, Viscusi, and when senior Taylor Long hit the ball on the ground to the right side, PC tried for a force-out at second, but didn’t make the play.

Episcopal populated all the bases with no outs, but Quinn calmed down and got the next three batters to pop the ball up to the infield. Freshman third baseman Grace Stansfield snagged the first one, and the next two went to sophomore second baseman Brigitte Gutpelet.

“Getting through the first without them scoring was important,” Quinn stated. “We definitely didn’t want to start out against them the way we did the last time.”

Believers in omens now found something else to latch onto; in the Quakers’ April 21 win at Episcopal, Gutpelet had led off the game for PC with a walk. On Saturday, Charter started the way, as the sophomore waited out Viscusi to reach first base. She stole second just before Quinn flew out, and she made third when Stansfield moved her with a grounder that produced the second out of the inning. However, a pop-up got EA out of the inning unscathed.

Although Charter gave up a base on an error at the top of the second, Quinn kept the game scoreless with two strike-outs and a put-out at first. After Viscusi notched two K’s of her own to help send PC down in order at the bottom of the inning, the Churchwomen had Long double to left center with one out in the top of the third. She got to third as sophomore Brooke Royer grounded out, then a fly ball to shallow center ended the threat.

After a strike-out to start the home half of the third, a high throw to first got PC junior Ayanna Matthews on base. A quality number-nine hitter whose ability reflects the depth of the PC franchise, Matthews stole second and then checked in at third when Gutpelet propelled a fly ball into centerfield.

Quinn then whacked a bona fide double deep to left center, scoring Matthews. Quinn tried to reach third, and although PC supporters felt she slid safely under the EA tag, she was ruled out. Still, the Quakers were on the board.

With two down in the visitors’ half of the fourth, Episcopal acquired a couple of baserunners through a modest infield single and a hit batswoman. They were left stranded when PC junior centerfielder Devon Loftus provided a leathery landing for a fly ball.

The Quakers began the bottom half with Stansfield reaching first base on an EA throwing error. The freshman traveled to second as Hennessy hit a solid grounder to the left side, keeping EA shortstop Long deep in the base path and outracing her throw to first.

Next up, PC’s sophomore catcher, Angela Zeidler, roped a ball that nosed into shallow left field, driving in what proved to be the winning run of the game. Zeidler had been a varsity regular as a freshman last year, but this year she had to replace a multi-year starter for Penn Charter behind the plate.

“As a catcher, I felt I had to be a leader on the team,” she said of her new full-time role. “It’s been hard, but I’ve definitely made progress, and it’s been a good year.”

She had caught and also had played third base for her travel team, but now she feels she’ll be in her catcher’s pads full-time. On Saturday, the 10th-grader had grounded out her first time at bat.

“Doc told me to keep my hands back and basically make contact,” she related. “My first time up, I came down on the ball, but the second time, with the score 1-0, I felt I had to get a hit, so I really put my head into it and drove the ball.”

A point of emphasis for the Charter batters was to try and lay off of Vicsusi’s notoriously wicked rise ball. They all knew the mantra that had been handed down by Doc Mittica: “belt and below.”

Fellow sophomore Marilyn Pease went in to run for Zeidler, but both she and Hennessy had to hold up as Vicsuci struck out the next batter. EA collected a second out, as well, but then sophomore Emily Zurcher drew a walk to load the bases. Episcopal avoided further damage by gloving a fly ball to end the inning.

Now the Quakers had to protect their lead against some of the best opposing hitters; two, three, and four were on the agenda. After giving up the double to Feliziano at the very start of the game, PC’s Quinn would get the initial batter out in every other inning.

Here, she started off by getting Viscusi to ground out to Gutpelet. Next, the equally dangerous Long did the same thing. On a dribbling, difficult, but fieldable ball tapped by EA’s Royer, Charter couldn’t pick up the ball cleanly. After reaching first safely, Royer was later forced out at second as Gutpelet fielded junior Claire Smith’s grounder and flipped the ball to Hennessy.

“We’ve been over and over the book looking at what Viscusi and Long have done against us,” Quinn said. “I knew the main thing was to try and keep them off balance and make them swing at it. Neither of them have had a lot of walks this year, so I knew they wanted to hit. After we got past those good hitters at the top of their order, I definitely got more confident.”

Hennessy added, “When the top of their line-up comes around, we really get focused because we know they’re good hitters. We just concentrate on playing our positions right, playing smart.”

With one out in the last of the fifth, a single by Quinn and a blown fielder’s choice play on a ball hit by Stansfield put PC runners on first and second, but then a low pop was pocketed by Viscusi, and she doubled up the runner on first base.

After Quinn and company dispatched the first two batters they faced at the top of the sixth frame, Pompeii produced the final Episcopal hit of the morning, a soundly-struck double down the line in right field. The EA 11th-grader got no farther as PC’s Stansfield swallowed up a grounder and threw the next batter out at first.

The Quakers hoped to reinforce their lead in the home half of the sixth, but the Churchwomen already had two outs in the book when Abby Cohen drew a walk. The sophomore had been batting for junior right fielder Zoe Neefe throughout the game, but now Neefe came in to run. She never got to show her speed, though, as Viscusi wrapped up the inning by fielding a grounder.

PC’s Quinn rarely tires late in a ball game, but she can get a bit overanxious in the final stages of a close contest. It happened in the first PC-EA clash this season, when the visiting Quakers went into the bottom of the seventh inning with a 4-0 advantage. Three of the four walks Quinn gave up throughout the game occurred in that inning, and Episcopal scored twice before Charter was able to seal the win.

Last Saturday, the final frame began well for the Quakers, with Quinn getting ahead 0-2 in the count and then vacuuming a ground ball to secure the first out. Viscusi drew a walk, but then Charter inched within one out of the championship when Long popped up to the reliable Gutpelet.

Although Viscusi stole second, it looked like that was as far as she would get when Royer hit a grounder right to Quinn.

It was a routine play, but Quinn’s throw went at least eight feet over first base, landing Royer on second and letting Viscusi score to make it a one-run game.

“I got a little too excited,” she reflected afterwards. “I had too much time to think about [the throw] and I’m a very mental person, so that’s probably what happened.”

She thought back to her seventh-inning struggle at Episcopal a month earlier, and she also remembered that she and her teammates had pulled together to salvage the situation.

“After the throw I was upset, but then I said to myself I know I can get through it,” she explained. “We have such a good defensive team this year, I knew I just had to pitch strikes, and they would back me up.”

The next ball was hit to her fellow team captain, Hennessy, and the three-year starter at shortstop put the game away.

Look at the solidly built Viscusi, or the lanky former Irwin star, Wenger, and you can see where their pitching power comes from. Quinn is small and slender, but one thing she’s got plenty of is determination.

“I knew I had something to prove,” said the PC senior, who will play for Ursinus College. “I give props to Alex; it’s been great pitching against her, and you always want to have that kind of competition to make you better. It’s kind of icing on the cake for me to pitch my last high school game against a good team in such a competitive game.”

Like many of PC’s best softball prospects over the years, she arrived on the School House Lane campus as a freshman who was well-heeled in travel team softball. For her first two seasons, the Cheltenham native pitched behind Jess Drossner, who was two years older. Even back then she made an impression, and in her sophomore season she became the first Quakers hurler ever to pitch a perfect game. She leaves as part of Penn Charter’s first PAIS championship team, as well.

In addition to Quinn, the Quakers will graduate utility player Mikayla Cimino and dedicated manager Sofia Toso next month.

Before his ball club claimed its first tourney title last weekend, Doc Mittica celebrated another milestone at the start of the month. The program’s founding coach, he collected his 300th win in a contest at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. The seasoned skipper was quick to give credit to his assistants, KatieJo Wacker, Melissa Grosman, and his son, Aaron.

As his 2015 franchise finished up last weekend with a record of 25-2, Mittica’s overall career mark stood at 308-147. In the “I’m not superstitious, but” category, he noted that for both the regular-season loss to Episcopal and a setback against Mid-Atlantic Prep League champion Peddie School, one of his girls forgot her uniform and had to wear someone else’s.

For the Quakers, it seems that when the numbers are right on the players, the numbers are right on the scoreboard.