ALTOONA — A nervous Karly Maurina stepped to the plate in the bottom of the seventh with the Western Cloverbelt Conference championship run standing on second base.
From the start of the season, Altoona softball had its eyes set on winning the conference championship. They lost just two games in the league all year, and now, tied 2-2 with the conference-leading Thorp Cardinals, a share of the title was just a single away.
“I was thinking if it’s a strike I’m going to hit it as hard as I can and hopefully get a single,” Maurina said.
She had gone 0 for 3 with a pair of strike outs in her previous at-bats, and down 1-2, she knew she had to swing at anything close.
The pitch looked to be close and Maurina took a big swing. She connected with the ball and as it flew into right-center field, the Rails dugout emptied onto the field to celebrate their 3-2 walk off victory on Thursday in Altoona.
“It feels awesome to be conference champs,” Maurina said.
Altoona’s victory led to a three-way tie for the conference title with the Rails, Cardinals and McDonell Macks all clinching shares after McDonell defeated Stanley-Boyd 14-5 just minutes before Maurina’s heroics.
Moments before Maurina’s walk off, the Rails found themselves in a two-run hole. They had been shutout for six innings as Thorp’s pitcher Kaitlyn Tyznik dazzled from the circle.
After a leadoff single and a one-out walk to open the frame, Brittany Klatt laid a bunt down the first base line. Thorp’s first baseman Kaytlyn Stunkel appeared to come up with the ball and tag Klatt as she sprinted down the line. However, the umpires ruled Klatt safe at first, allowing the go-ahead run to reach base.
A batter later, Averie Varsho stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. She fell behind 0-2, then hit a grounder to shortstop.
Payton Lamont took off from second and appeared to gently collide with Thorp’s shortstop Hailey Zurakowski. Impeded, Zurakowski couldn’t make the play and Varsho’s grounder rolled through to the outfield to score a pair.
“I’m not going to get into talking about calls,” Thorp coach Kurt Rhyner said. “I have the utmost respect for umpires and their decisions. … I’ve been on the other side of that before.”
Rhyner said he was proud of the way his team performed on the afternoon. Despite the loss, his team still went 11-2 in conference play, dropping both its games on walk offs.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that we are co-conference champs,” Rhyner said. “I know our girls didn’t feel that way after the game, they kind of felt like their hearts were ripped out, but I think when they have some to digest it and think about it, they’ll be pretty excited about it too.”
With Tyznik dominant through six, the Cardinals looked as though they had all but wrapped up the conference title when Paige Rhyner hit a RBI double to give Thorp a two-run lead in the top of the seventh.
The Rails had a chance to break through earlier in the game when Varsho walked to lead off the sixth inning. Altoona head coach Chris Maurina opted to have his daughter, Karly, attempt a bunt. But after two strikes, she took a strike looking for the first out. Kate Harris followed with a single to move Varsho into scoring position, but Lydia Berseth popped out on a bunt attempt and the Varsho never advanced past second.
“The two girls I had bunt were two of my best bunters,” Chris said. “For whatever reason, today they couldn’t get it down. … If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably do it again and just tell them to bunt strikes.”
Thorp’s opening run came in the third inning courtesy of a solo home run from Zurakowski.
A half hour away in Stanley, Mack fans had their attention split between their game and the Atloona-Thorp showdown.
McDonell softball coach Chelsea Seckora said her team wasn’t paying attention to the other game’s score, but after her team’s victory she was informed that they were co-conference champions.
“Winning a conference championship is something to be super proud of,” Seckora said. “Both Thorp and Altoona are great teams. It’s great to be a conference champ in such a great conference.”
Thorp returns to action on Thursday with an out-of-conference game against the undefeated Blair-Taylor Wildcats. After that, the Cardinals start the WIAA playoffs on May 21 when they take on the winner of the Regis-Eleva-Strum game.
Altoona has one more regular season game against Medford on Thursday, then the Rails too start their playoffs on May 21 against the sixth-seeded Neillsville Warriors.
Altoona 3, Thorp 2
Thorp 001 000 1--2 4 2
Altoona 000 000 3--3 6 1
WP: Ally Wagner (7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 5 K). LP: Kaitlyn Tyznik ( 6.1 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 8 K). Leading hitters--Thorp: Alexa Hanson 1-1 (2B, RBI), Hailey Zurakowski 1-3 (HR, RBI). Altoona: Averie Varsho 2-3 (2 RBI), Karly Maurina 1-4 (RBI).
Records: Thorp 15-5, 12-2, Altoona 17-4, 12-2