BY JEFF FALK
NEWVILLE – There are turnarounds which are abrupt, 180-degree, sudden switches. And then there are turnarounds which are more subtle – sweeping, looping changes of direction.
Guess which one requires more time.
On Tuesday evening at Big Spring High School, in the opening round of the District Three Class AAA playoffs, the Palmyra softball program’s transformation continued to follow a more deliberate arc. The inexperienced Cougars were plagued by key errors, too many free passes and ineffectual contact at the plate during a 6-1 season-ending setback to Shippensburg.
Palmyra, which was making its second straight district appearance following a long, drawn-out absence, ended its campaign at 10-11. The Cougars, who entered the contest as the tournament’s 13th-seeded club, are attempting to change the culture of a Palmyra female sport that ranks somewhere behind basketball, field hockey, soccer, even track and field in popularity.
Shippensburg, the fourth-seeded team in the Class AAA bracket, upped its overall mark to 16-5 and stepped into Thursday’s quarterfinal round of the event.
“Yes, we improved since the beginning of the season,” said Palmyra head coach Kathy Wicker. “But no, they (her players) didn’t absorb enough pieces of the game throughout the season. The game, as a whole, it’s not just about hitting and fielding and throwing. It’s learning the game, anticipating things before they happen. That’s the part we didn’t pick up.
“Obviously, sure (the season was a success), we made districts,” continued Wicker. “We made it count when we had to. You’ve got to put hits and defense together, and we didn’t do that today. Sometimes you can have one or the other. But if you don’t have either, it’s tough to win games.”
In yesterday’s contest, the Greyhounds put the Cougars behind the eight-ball almost immediately.
Shippensburg grabbed a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the initial inning, making the most out of a one-out single and two Palmyra errors on the same play. Then in the second, Palmyra junior starter Cat Wicker was probably fortunate to surrender only the run that made it 2-0, after the Greyhounds had loaded the bases with nobody out.
“I saw too many errors and not enough offense,” said Wicker. “And there were too many pop-ups for us. They (her hitters) were dropping their hands. I don’t believe it was in her (Shippensburg starter Morgan Newell) pitching.”
The Cougars sliced their deficit in half with a two-out run in the top of the third. Sophomore Kayla Bonawitz sparked the score with a long double to center field, ahead of Cara Scipioni’s RBI-single.
“She was nothing we hadn’t seen before,” said Wicker of Newell. “She’s an average pitcher. But when the girls drop their hands it’s going to cause pop-ups. It’s a fundamental thing.
“Mechanicsburg played them (the Greyhounds) and they (the Wildcats) said their pitcher throws strikes but is nothing special,” added Wicker. “They said, ‘As long as you hit the ball, you should be fine’.”
The Greyhounds took control of the momentum for good in the bottom of the third. This time when Shipp loaded the bases, with two singles and a walk and nobody out, it made Wicker pay.
Shippensburg scored three times, on a run-producing hit, an RBI-grounder and a costly Cougar error, to extend its lead to 5-1.
“When we scored, they answered back with three runs,” said Wicker. “The difference was errors and walks. They (the Greyhounds) scored three runs on two hits. Stats don’t lie.”
Newell struck out five, walked none and surrendered four Cougar hits. In her route-going performance, Wicker yielded nine hits, fanned two and issued five free passes.
“She struggled,” said the elder Wicker of her daughter. “She’s been on and off all season. The walks and hit-by-pitches hurt, and those runners scored. It’s not like they absolutely dominated us. We gave them a couple of easy base runners.”
Shippensburg tallied its sixth and final run in the bottom of the sixth, after Wicker had retired the first two hitters of the at-bat. Back-to-back singles, followed by back-to-back walks did the trick for the Greyhounds.
“We had ups and downs this year,” said Wicker. “We struggled. We got the right wins against the right teams to keep our (District Three Class AAA) power rankings up. There were struggles along the way, but there were high moments too.”
After the game, Palmyra athletic director Brian Weidler revealed that all of the Cougar female athletic programs will play up a classification next school year. What that means for the Palmyra softball program is that it will be competing with Class AAAA schools next spring.