It's not often that a third-place section finisher advances to a WPIAL title game, in any sport, especially when the team has only one senior in its starting lineup.
The South Side Beaver softball team is an exception to that unwritten rule.
The Rams (16-3) earned their first trip to the WPIAL Class A title game by outscoring three playoff opponents by a combined score of 24-7.
They'll face regular-season nemesis Neshannock (15-2), the Section 4-A champion, at 11:30 a.m. today at Lilley Field on the campus of California University of Pennsylvania. Neshannock defeated the Rams twice during the regular season, 14-8 and 10-3.
"I'm not surprised," South Side Beaver coach Therese Waxler said. "Our section is clearly the strongest of the four Class A sections. The seedings reflected that."
Section 4 champion Neshannock was seeded No. 1, runner-up Shenango was No. 4, and South Side Beaver was No. 7. Neshannock and Shenango received first-round byes in the 12-team bracket, along with Section 2 co-champions Carmichaels, the No. 2 seed, and Jefferson-Morgan, the No. 3 seed.
South Side Beaver made its presence known in the opening round of the playoffs with a 9-1 domination of Leechburg. The Rams showed they were a team to be reckoned with in the quarterfinals, as they pounded Carmichaels, 10-3.
"We had a couple injuries early in the season that kept us from reaching our full potential," Waxler said. "We got everybody back for the playoffs, made a few tweaks to our lineup, and finally found the right combination."
The Rams earned their title berth with a 5-3 victory against Jefferson-Morgan.
"This is our first time in school history we've made it to the WPIAL finals," said Waxler, who is in her seventh season. "We've made it to the semifinals a few times, but never made it to the finals. We're really excited."
Waxler's squad will have a major challenge facing it in Neshannock.
"The first time we played Neshannock, we had a 6-1 lead, then committed seven or eight errors in one inning," Waxler said. "You can't make that many mistakes and expect to beat a quality team like Neshannock."
Despite the two losses, Waxler likes the Rams' chances in the title game.
"We are very familiar with [Neshannock]," Waxler said. "They are beatable. We just have to play our game and avoid the mistakes. They always say that it's hard to beat a team three times."
South Side Beaver's top player is sophomore first baseman Connor McGaffic. As the Rams cleanup hitter, McGaffic leads the team with a .593 average, 15 home runs and 46 runs batted in.
"Connor is a very good athlete," Waxler said. "She's also played shortstop and pitched for us this year, when needed. She's clearly our best hitter."
McGaffic may be the Rams' best hitter, but Toni Yacoviello, a sophomore third baseman, has been just as impressive in the playoffs. Yacoviello hit a grand slam in the win against Carmichaels, then came through with a three-run homer against Jefferson-Morgan. For the season, she's hitting .500 with three home runs and 23 RBI.
Second baseman Sarah Androlia, the only senior starter, and freshman shortstop Hunter Hand round out the Rams infield. Androlia is hitting .466 and has 30 RBIs. Hand is hitting .483.
"Hunter missed nine games with an injury, so we had to make some changes to our lineup when she was out," Waxler said.
A pair of freshmen have been South Side Beaver's battery during the playoffs. McKenna Smith has pitched in all three playoff games, while Capri Sollinger-Kinsley has done the catching. Smith is hitting .578, while Sollinger-Kinsley is hitting .388.
"McKenna was one of our pitchers during the regular season, but she also played first base, second base and left field," Waxler said. "Capri saw time at second base before the playoffs. Both have done a great job in the playoffs."
The outfield consists of center fielder Cheyenne Seik, left fielder Alexis Dhayer and right fielder Lacey Weible. Seik bats second and is hitting .431.
"Cheyenne has made some big defensive plays for us in the playoffs," Waxler said. "She has a great arm. She's thrown out a couple runners at the plate."
Advancing to the WPIAL title game has also earned South Side Beaver a berth in the upcoming PIAA playoffs.
"We qualified for the PIAA playoffs in 2011, but lost in the first round," Waxler said.