Conemaugh Valley girls rally late to advance over Portage in District 6 Class 1A softball playoffs

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Conemaugh Valley broke open a close game with a late offensive outburst and beat visiting Portage 8-1 in Monday afternoon’s District 6 Class 1A softball quarterfinal.

The seventh-seeded Mustangs (10-12) carried a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the fifth inning, as Portage senior pitcher Paige Phillips kept Conemaugh Valley’s hitters off-balance – until a three-run homer by freshman shortstop Maddie McCleester vaulted the second-seeded Blue Jays (18-3) into the lead.

Conemaugh Valley added five more runs in the following frame, putting the contest in hand and securing an opportunity to host third-seeded Claysburg-Kimmel in Thursday’s semifinal matchup.

“It takes a little while to get onto a pitcher of (Phillips’) caliber,” said Conemaugh Valley coach Paula McCleester. “She has a fastball, throws off-speed, and works the corners.

“We just needed to believe in ourselves. All it took was one person to get it started, and then it turned into a flood.”

After back-to-back one-out singles by Ava Schellhammer and Madalynn Stiffler in the bottom of the fifth, Maddie McCleester blasted a 2-1 pitch from Phillips over the left-field fence. McCleester finished with three of Conemaugh Valley’s 10 hits and also scored twice.

“I just had to stay calm and focused,” Maddie McCleester said. “I knew I needed to do something for my team, and I was able to find a pitch down the middle and just drive it.”

That long ball provided all the run support that Blue Jays sophomore pitcher Maddy Beiter would need. The right-hander picked up the complete-game victory in the circle, surrendering just one unearned run on four hits while striking out 14 and walking two.

“Maddy Beiter was tough out there,” said Paula McCleester. “It was hot – probably the hottest game we’ve had all year. We’ve been off for a while, but she pitched really well.”

“My team always has my back, and the faith I put into them, they put back into me,” Beiter said. “I was confident today with my fastball and drop.”

The Mustangs had won five straight heading into the contest.

“You couldn’t have asked for a better first half of the game,” Portage coach Makena Baumgardner said, “but the last two innings got the best of us.

“Coming in here knowing we lost big to CV during the regular season, we had nothing to lose, so we figured we might as well have fun and make a game of it.”

Junior third baseman Lyndsey Castel went 2-for-2 at the plate for the Mustangs.

With two outs in the top of the third, Tori Harrison and Castel reached on consecutive singles for Portage. Harrison stole third and then sprinted home on a throwing error to open the scoring.

That margin held until Maddie McCleester’s home run, and the Blue Jays began the sixth inning with another round-tripper when freshman Megan Bilak launched a solo shot down the left-field line. Bilak finished 2-for-3.

Beiter then drew a walk and later came home as Julia Stiffler reached on an error to make it 5-1. Stiffler scored as Schellhammer reached on a subsequent error, and following a two-out double by McCleester, sophomore center fielder Kylee Ferguson lined a two-run double to right that set the final.