UNIVERSITY PARK — The game finished nearly nine hours after it was originally scheduled to start, it took a bases-loaded, walk-off hit, and it came minutes after blowing a 2-0 lead in the seventh.

In other words, it was the quintessential West Perry softball win. Scripted just as they like it (except for the rain delay).

For the first time in program history, the Mustangs are PIAA champions, having beaten Elizabeth Forward 3-2 for the Class 4A title at Penn State’s Beard Field late Thursday night.

“It’s awesome, it’s so exciting,” senior pitcher Cori Ritter said after throwing a complete, six-hit, four-strikeout game. “I’m really glad to be able to know my name’s going to be written down for more than just one thing.”

West Perry Elizabeth Forward
West Perry Elizabeth Forward
PIAA Class 4A Championship
West Perry Elizabeth Forward
West Perry Elizabeth Forward

Ritter coughed up the lead in the top of the seventh, but her offense wasted little time saving the night.

Tiara Johnson led things off with a one-out walk.

That set the winning series in motion on a wild set of circumstances.

Johnson waited two pitches to try to swipe second. But Warriors (20-5) catcher Brianna Sersevic threw a dart just a few feet into Johnson’s path. She, ball and shortstop Anna Resnik’s glove all met at almost the exact same spot, and Johnson’s powerful slide punched the ball some 30 feet into left-center field.

But Johnson had no clue for several heart-pounding moments.

“I definitely thought I was out. But I somehow managed to kick the ball away from her or something like that,” she said. “I didn’t even see it. I was literally turned over, so I had to get up.”

By the time she popped up, head coach John Zeigler had been screaming and hopping in the third-base coach’s box trying to get her attention for what seemed like an eternity. She noticed in time to sprint an extra base.

“I’m trying to get her attention and run her to third base because I knew if we got her to third base we’re winning that ball game,” the skipper said. “‘Cause we’re scoring her no matter what.”

“I saw the ball thrown perfect, actually,” said senior catcher Cheyenne Shughart, who would benefit the most from that fortuitous kick save (more on that in a moment). “I thought she was out, and then the ball went flying into left field.”

With one down, EF made the curious decision to walk Lindsey McCurdy and then Ritter to load the bases. That set up Shughart in a moment every ball player dreams of as a little kid.

“I’ve never felt sick more going up to the plate,” Shughart said, though.

Zeigler said he whispered to her during a brief conference both teams took that she needed to come out swinging because he’d have her bunt on the second pitch, something Shughart rarely does. Anything on the ground would’ve scored Johnson, they believed.

It never got to that. Shughart smashed the first pitch she saw past a diving Resnik to win the game.

.@athletics_wpsd is a state champ for the first time in program history!@CheyenneShughar didn’t waste a second, blasting the game-winning single to score @tmjohn25.

Mustangs beat Elizabeth Forward 3-2 in PIAA Class 4A championship. pic.twitter.com/klmPAyg81F

— Jake Adams (@jakeadams520) June 14, 2019

“[Kailey Larcinese] threw a lot of first-strike pitches, right down the middle inside,” Shughart said. “And that’s my pitch, so I just went for it.”

“I actually knew it was through the hole,” Johnson said of what she saw at third base and how long she decided to wait to make sure it cleared the infield (not long, in fact). “I knew that the shortstop did have some range, but I knew that it was through there quick enough. … I saw it up to the point of being at the third baseman, but then I just went. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m scoring.’”

It set off ear-splitting screams of joy as Johnson was mobbed at the plate.

“I don’t think I’ve really grasped that it actually happened, and I can’t believe it’s actually my last game. But I’m glad we went down the way we did,” she said. “I’m really excited about it, I’m glad that we did it. It was our goal for the whole year, obviously.”

“This is a dream come true,” said Zeigler.

It couldn’t have been written any better for the District 3 third-place Mustangs (24-5).

Rain ruined much of the day, delaying the first game — Class 6A: Central Dauphin vs. Hazleton — nearly three hours, only for that game to get delayed again with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh for another three hours. (CD held on for a 3-1 win, needing four pitches after the second delay to clinch on a chopper to the mound.) West Perry was originally set to start at 1, but the game didn’t begin until 8:05.

It was a long wait in the bus. Around 4 p.m., the team was on the concourse warming up, but the second rain delay forced them back to the bus. Ritter said it actually helped because the team was too nervous during the first warmup. When they came out around 7 p.m., they were more relaxed.

“I really think that was a good thing for us,” the ace of the state tournament said. “We were definitely all really nervous, it was crazy.”

The Mustangs battled a WPIAL program also making its first appearance at Penn State in a tight, edge-of-your seat pitchers’ duel for an hour-and-a-half.

Ritter was efficient with her pitch count, even if she couldn’t avoid playing games of chicken with the score and Elizabeth Forward’s offense. She only had one clean frame, facing runners in scoring position multiple times, including a tense bases-loaded, one-out situation in the fifth.

She escaped that jam with a 1-0 lead thanks to a diving stab on a liner to second baseman Katelyn Zeigler, then a harmless fly ball to Tiara Johnson in center.

“I just think we like the tension, we like the excitement,” Ritter said.

“The defense comes through and Cori comes through,” Zeigler said. “Cori seems to like pressure. I don’t, but she seems to like pressure.”

The Mustangs had gifted her a one-run lead in the bottom of the third. Johnson tripled off the base of the right-field wall with two down, then McCurdy followed with a lined single up the middle to drive in Johnson.

In the sixth, Ritter got some insurance when Katelyn Zeigler and Gretchen Frederick ripped back-to-back doubles into the gaps with two outs.

Excellent two-out hitting. @tmjohn25 lifted one to the base of the RF wall for a triple. Then she’s driven in by McCurdy here.

First run of the game makes it 1-0 @athletics_wpsd. pic.twitter.com/XntJoM84Nl

— Jake Adams (@jakeadams520) June 14, 2019

Back to back doubles! @katie_zeigler with the first, then driven in after Frederick fouls off a half dozen pitches and runs this pitch to the fence. 2-0 @athletics_wpsd after 6. 3 outs left. pic.twitter.com/n47manmvfW

— Jake Adams (@jakeadams520) June 14, 2019

It wouldn’t last. Ritter admitted to battling nerves in the top of the seventh, three outs away from the biggest win of her career.

A walk and two singles loaded the bases with no outs. Then Taylor Ludwick and Sersevic tied the game on consecutive sac-flies. Ritter ended the rally with a strikeout, her fourth of the night.

And Elizabeth Forward has tied it in the 7th. pic.twitter.com/wj7mIS9jk5

— Jake Adams (@jakeadams520) June 14, 2019

She was up fourth in the order and eager to get some redemption, but it never happened. It didn’t matter seconds later after Shughart’s single won the game.

It was a complete effort in all three phases. The Mustangs managed eight hits against an excellent pitcher in Larcinese, who fanned nine, giving her 200 for the year, as she constantly adjusted to West Perry’s ever-evolving approaches at the plate, mixing two-strike rise balls with middle-in fastballs on the first pitch to try and counter West Perry’s patience, at first, and later aggressiveness.

Johnson finished 1-for-2 with two runs, and McCurdy was 2-for-3. Shughart finished with two hits, as did the coach’s daughter, Katelyn Zeigler.

And the defense was nearly flawless except for one error early in the game. Morgan Ceprish stabbed several hard grounders at short, and Johnson roamed center with ease. Zeigler’s caught line drive with the bases loaded potentially saved the game, arguably the best defensive play of the night.

“Our defense is second to none, I think,” John Zeigler said.

“It feels amazing,” Shughart said. “Senior year, last time ever stepping on the field with these girls that we’ve grown up together, feels amazing being state champs.”

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Email Jake Adams at jadams@cumberlink.com or follow him on Twitter @jakeadams520