Brianna Knipe (Bethlehem, PA/Liberty) hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th inning to earn the Kutztown University softball team a 10-7 victory over California University (PA) Saturday afternoon and its first Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Championship in program history.
Knipe was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player for her championship-winning blast. She batted .429 through Kutztown’s four games with two home runs and six hits.
With the win, Kutztown earned its first PSAC Championship in program history in its 34th attempt. The Golden Bears (29-21) also earn an automatic bid into the NCAA Atlantic Regional tournament set to begin on Thursday, May 9 with the conference championship.
The championship was also Kutztown head coach Judy Lawes’ first conference title of her career. Now in her 26th year at the helm of the Golden Bears, Lawes also earned her 800th career victory in the opening game of the tournament.
“It’s been a long time coming and I’m really proud of our team,” Lawes said. “We’ve been put in this situation a couple of years in the past, and we knew it was going to be really tough to make it through this bracket. To pull out our first win (over Mercyhurst) meant a lot, but for Bri Knipe to go yard in the final at-bat is tremendous.”
Batting in the bottom half of the tenth as the home team, Kutztown’s Maria Isgro (Galloway, NJ/Absegami) led off the inning with a single to left field. Nicole Henninger (Reading, PA./Muhlenberg) walked on four pitches to bring Knipe to the plate. After fouling off a fastball straight back, Knipe got ahold of the second pitch and drove it to right center field for the victory.
“I’ve been waiting so long for this moment,” Knipe said. “I knew with (Maria) Isgro on second, all I had to do was make good contact and she would score. Once I saw it go over the wall, I was so excited because I knew we finally achieved our goal.”
Knipe is one of four seniors on this year’s club. Knipe, Isgro, Katie Lynch (Willow Street, PA/Lampeter-Strasburg), and Henninger are all four-year starters for the Golden Bears and have finally achieved the goal they set out when first stepping foot on campus in 2009.
“Our four seniors are such great players and played a vital role in our success this year,” Lawes said. “They are all four-year starters and have been the heart and soul of the team. We had some rough slumps along the way but they believed in themselves and each other, and that is something I will always remember.”
Kutztown overcame a three-run deficit on Saturday and used its mental toughness and some sharp defensive plays to keep the seventh-ranked Vulcans (36-4) off the scoreboard in the extra frames. Pitcher Mary Kociencki (Columbia, NJ/Sparta ) allowed three total base runners from the eighth through 10th innings. She stranded a runner on third with a strikeout in the ninth, and induced a pair of line drive double plays in the eighth and 10th innings to keep the Golden Bears in the game.
“We finally acted like a mature defense and the defense we know we are capable of,” Knipe said of her team’s defensive play to make it through the 10th inning. “I am so proud of everyone. It was a total team effort and that is why we won; because we played as a team.”
Knipe’s homer was one of four in the game and 11 in the tournament for Kutztown. Isgro and Henninger hit back-to-back homers in the second to give KU a 2-1 lead. Isgro’s homer went deep into the woods in left field as Henninger sent her long shot off the scoreboard in left field to bring Kutztown fans to their feet.
The Vulcans answered with four runs in the third inning, one of which was earned against KU starter Dominique Ficara (Swedesboro, NJ/Kingsway/Hofstra). Ficara, just a sophomore, started all four games for Kutztown in the playoffs. In 18 innings, she posted a 1.94 ERA with nine strikeouts and held opponents to a .222 average.
In relief, Kociencki was magnificent. In three appearances, she posted a 1.08 ERA and held opponents to a .122 batting average with five hits in 13 innings.
Junior Colleen Smith (Islip Terrace, NY/East Islip/Hofstra) belted her team-leading 13th home run of the season in the third inning to cut the deficit to 5-4.
Trailing 7-4 in the fifth, Lynch brought the Golden Bears within two with an RBI single. With runners on the corners, Lynch attempted to steal second to draw a throw as Morgan Booth (Stroudsburg, PA/Stroudsburg) scored on a head first slide to bring the score to 7-6.
Krista Schauder (Gilbertsville, PA/Boyertown) tied the game with a pinch-hit single up the middle on the first pitch to score Knipe from third, who singled through the left side earlier in the inning. Kutztown had a chance to take the lead with runners on the corners and two outs, but a bunt attempt by Booth that would have scored Lynch from third hit Booth outside of the batter’s box and was ruled out on batters interference.
Kutztown will be making its 17th appearance in the NCAA tournament and 14th in a row.
“We came here four years ago and have worked so hard to get to this point,” Knipe said of her senior class. “We’ve been through everything you could imagine. We had a great year last year, but we really wanted a championship this year. That part of the lineup was phenomenal today, and that is the heart that we’ve had for our team.”