Hempfield Area softball coach Bob Kalp is no stranger to the WPIAL softball championship game.
Kalp has coached in five WPIAL finals. The Hempfield softball program has reached a total of six WPIAL finals in its history.
The Spartans will be making their seventh WPIAL championship game appearance tonight at 7 at California University of Pennsylvania thanks to dominant pitching and defense that has been responsible for five consecutive shutouts and no runs allowed in these playoffs.
Meanwhile, Canon-McMillan has never been to the WPIAL finals. The Big Macs are making their first appearance in the championship game tonight thanks to the long ball. The team has hit 18 home runs this season, including six in these playoffs.
To say tonight's matchup will be a meeting of contrasting styles and programs might be an understatement.
"This is my sixth trip there," Kalp said. "It is one of the advantages we have, we have a couple kids on the squad who have been there done that. We know it is not easy to get there and it is harder to win when you do get there."
Hempfield saw firsthand how tough it is to extend a season in the playoffs. Last season a 17-0 Hempfield team was upset in its first game of the playoffs by Seneca Valley.
The Spartans pitching and defense would allow no such letdown this year. After a first-round bye, Hempfield blanked North Allegheny in the quarterfinals, 3-0, and shut out Peters Township, 4-0, in the semifinals.
Canon-McMillan has taken a slightly different route. Without a first-round bye, the Big Macs got through McKeesport Area, 4-1, in the first round thanks to three home runs. The team came through with two home runs in the quarterfinals, an 8-1 victory against Norwin, and then another home run in a 4-3 triumph against top-seeded Shaler Area in the semifinals last week.
"Our kids are hitting home runs, all the hitters have gotten better," Canon-McMillan coach Michele Moeller said. "I was shocked we put that many runs on the board against Norwin. [In the WPIAL final], I can't even make a prediction if it will be low or high scoring, you would expect a WPIAL final to be tight."
Although the Canon-McMillan program has never been to a WPIAL final, Moeller has. She was a starter on Baldwin's 1986 WPIAL championship team.
If Moeller wants to experience a WPIAL championship as a coach, her team is going to have to find a way to string hits together against Hempfield's senior pitcher, Karilynn Null. This season Null is 10-2 with a 0.61 ERA. She has 48 strikeouts to 14 walks over 691/3 innings and teams are batting just .198 against her.
"Karilynn has done a nice job pitching," Kalp said. "She gives up hits but not in bunches. She can give up six or seven [in a game] and still shut teams out if you keep them to singles and eliminate the walks and errors."
The two teams met earlier this season on April 2 at Canon-McMillan. The Big Macs prevailed, 1-0, in a game that only featured six total hits. It was the fourth game of the season for both teams. Kalp obviously hopes the result is different this time but he would not mind to see a similar type score.
"I don't know if we are going to be able to score a bunch of runs on Thursday," Kalp said. "If they score seven, eight runs, we'll be in trouble."
Offensively, Hempfield is led by senior catcher Alyssa Bates (.433 batting average), junior shortstop Justyne Falbo (16 runs scored), sophomore left fielderAlaina Montgomery (.426) and junior right fielder Maddy Knizner (.406), who had two hits and RBIs and a run in Hempfield's semifinal win against Peters Township.
In the playoffs perhaps nobody has been as valuable to their team as Canon-McMillan's sophomore catcher Giorgiana Zeremenko. She has three home runs in these playoffs and came up with the game-winning two-out hit in the bottom of the seventh inning against Shaler in the WPIAL semifinals.
This will be the program's first WPIAL championship game appearance but the setting will be familiar. The Big Macs played at California University in the first round and quarterfinals.
"Having play at Cal U., we're familiar with the surroundings," Moeller said. "Obviously, they'll be excited and there will be nerves but they will be ready to go out and compete.
"They are gamers."
• Game: Hempfield Area vs. Canon-McMillan, WPIAL Class AAAA championship game.
• Where: California University of Pennsylvania.
• When: 7 p.m.
• Skinny: The game will be Hempfield's sixth WPIAL title game appearance, and it will be the first for Canon-McMillan.