Even before the season started, Montour High School softball coach Bill Wills thought his junior/senior-dominated team could make a run to the WPIAL championship game.
Elizabeth Forward coach Harry Rutherford had different expectations in the preseason with his young team, pegging this as a potential rebuilding year with the chance to play spoiler.
Fast forward two months and the differing preseason expectations will converge today at 4:30 p.m. at California University of Pennsylvania in the WPIAL Class AAA championship game.
The No. 2-seeded Spartans (16-5), who won the Section 2-AAA title with an 8-2 record, activated the 10-run mercy rule in five innings in a pair of 12-2 wins against New Castle and Yough before rallying to edge Belle Vernon Area, 3-2, in eight innings in the WPIAL semifinals.
The No. 9-seeded Warriors (17-6), who tied with Thomas Jefferson for second place in Section 3-AAA behind Belle Vernon Area, edged Indiana, 5-4, in the first round before surprising top-seeded Ambridge Area, 7-4, in the quarterfinals and then managing to defeat No. 4 Greensburg Salem, 2-1, despite producing only one hit.
Many of the Montour starters were a part of the 2010 WPIAL championship team, including four-year starters Tori Roman and Allison Hryadil, a pair of senior infielders.
Senior pitcher Kaitlyn Kutchman is a three-year starter. This will be her second WPIAL championship game start. She outdueled Ambridge pitcher Kayla Haslett in the 2010 WPIAL final, a 1-0 Montour win.
Kutchman (Seton Hill University), Hryadil (Westminster College) and Roman, who is undecided on a college choice, will all play in college next season. Junior shortstop Stacey Capp, junior center fielder Alyssa McMurtrie and sophomore catcher Malory Gerst are other offensive leaders for the Spartans.
This will be the first WPIAL final for all the players on the Elizabeth Forward team. The program last reached the championship game in 2007 where it fell to Belle Vernon.
"This is exciting for them," Rutherford said. "They are all really pumped up. They realize they haven't been here before and most of them have not been in the playoffs before this year. They are really excited about the opportunity to play in the championship game."
The two teams have not played each other this season but that is not to say they have not seen each other. Elizabeth Forward's semifinal game on May 23 was at 2 p.m. at California University and Montour's game followed at 4 p.m.
"Montour appeared to be a pretty similar team to Ambridge," Rutherford said. "There are some nice hitters on that club and a pitcher who can spot the ball fairly well. They will be pretty tough."
Rutherford started to get the inkling that his team could be pretty strong after a trip to Florida. The Warriors had opened the season with four wins over WPIAL competition, outscoring opponents, 20-1, but it was his team's showing at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Fla. that got Rutherford excited.
Elizabeth Forward took two of three games against some of the top teams from Ohio.
"In Florida that is when we realized we had a shot," Rutherford said. "We had seen some pretty tough squads and to come out of there 2-1, that changed the outlook. Instead of being a spoiler, we had a good opportunity to do well in our section."
Junior pitcher Portia McBride was called upon to start after senior Liz Paterra was injured in the preseason.
"To have to step in and replace our senior starter, it was a bit of a shock for Portia," Rutherford said. "She adapted very quickly."
Preseason expectations are not the only thing different about these two teams.
"Looking at Montour, they are definitely a team with a lot of power that can drive the ball," Rutherford said. "We are more of a line-drive, station-to-station team. We are playing for one run and sometimes running into five runs, that is more of our game."