ALLENTOWN — Things that never get old: A Sinatra tune. Fireflies on a summer night. Lampeter-Strasburg in the state softball championship game.
The Pioneers booked their third straight appearance in the PIAA Class 5A softball finals — and fourth in five seasons — with a 3-0 shutout of West Scranton on Monday afternoon in Patriots Park.
Junior right-hander Keiva Middleton tamed the potent top of the West Scranton lineup, allowing just four hits, and extended her state tourney shutout streak to 15 innings as the Pioneers improved to 29-1.
In 65 postseason innings, her earned-run average is a miniscule 0.81.
L-S will face WPIAL runner-up Armstrong (18-5), a 7-4 winner over North Hills, for the championship Friday afternoon at Penn State's Beard Field. Game time scheduled for 4 p.m.
“It never gets old,” said Pioneers coach Gene Charles, who’ll take the Pioneers back to the finals for the third time in his four-season tenure as head coach. "Off the top, I want to thank E-town coach Gary Wylde for giving me a great scouting report."
Elizabethtown fell to the Invaders (14-4) in the first round of states.
Wylde's report was that the top five in the lineup, led by No. 4 batter Olivia Dougher (.536, 23 RBIs) and No. 3 Gianna Russo (.419, 5 HRs), were dangerous, but after that there were outs to be collected. And collect them Middleton did, as that part of the order went 1-for-10 with three of Middleton's six strikeouts.
The report also said West's pitcher, Mia Butka, was faster than his own Kristin Geesey, but not nearly as fast as Middleton, relying on a change she'd throw anywhere in the count.
L-S tested her from the start as Chloe Blantz ripped a 2-1 pitch into right field for a double, taking third as the ball eluded Emily Stevens for an error.
"I was going for over the fence," said Blantz, one of three seniors to start as freshmen in the Pioneers’ 2018 state championship victory. "When I saw the ball get by her I kept running to third."
She was still there two batters later as Butka got Daisy Frank and Cam Byler on strikes. But Middleton picked them up, rifling a double over the head of Russo in center, scoring Blantz. Sydney Weichler came on to courtesy run for Middleton and scampered home as shortstop Maddie Maloney threw away Emily Platt's ground ball.
Armed with a two-run lead, Middleton set to protecting it. She was tested immediately as Butka drilled a one-out triple to right. She remained there as Middleton got Russo swinging and Dougher on a fly ball to right to end the threat.
L-S had multiple opportunities to increase its advantage as Butka pitched out of a two-on, no-out second inning, and two-on, no-out again in the third.
"I thought we were going to break it open," Charles said. They never really did, ending up with eight left on base.
Middleton retired seven in a row before Russo walked with one out in the fourth. After a fielder's choice, Bella Summa singled to put two on, but Middleton got Amelia Noll on strikes.
The Invaders turned up the pressure, and the heat, in the fifth as Tori Herne singled to lead off and Isabella Gigliotti reached on a one-out error on her sacrifice, putting runners on second and third as the lineup turned over.
"I just pointed at her and tapped my chest, to say it's just you and me," catcher Karissa Hirt said. Middleton got Maloney on strikes and Butka on a pop to Frank at second.
Not only did Hirt provide a calming influence behind the plate, she gave her team insurance at the plate in the sixth.
Brooke Zuber hit an opposite-field double into left and Ally Raub walked to open the inning. Julia Gerard moved them up on a sacrifice and Hirt, who had singled past first in her previous at bat, hit a ground ball to second baseman Noll at nearly the same spot. Zuber trotted home easily.
Now down three runs, and running out of outs, Dougher singled with one out in the Invaders’ sixth, took second on a wild pitch and, after Summa walked, both advanced on a sacrifice. Middleton got Herne on a comebacker, then pitched around Maloney's two-out walk in the seventh as Gerard settled under Butka's fly to center to end the game.