South Xtra: Following three-win season, TJ claims WPIAL softball title

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The Thomas Jefferson softball team won just three games last year.

This year has been a completely different story. The Jaguars won four playoff games on their way to a WPIAL Class AAA championship, capping one of the more remarkable turnaround and underdog stories in recent WPIAL history.

The No. 13-seeded Jaguars played as if they had no recollection of last season's 3-12 campaign or this season's low seed in a 15-team field.

Thomas Jefferson marched to the WPIAL final leaving a trail of higher seeds behind on their path to California University's Lilley Field. It knocked off No. 4 Knoch, 3-2, No. 5 Trinity, 3-1, and -- in the biggest upset of the tournament -- No. 1 Greensburg Salem, 4-3, to reach the WPIAL final, first in program history, where they ran into another underdog in No. 11 Mars Area.

The Jaguars would complete the Cinderella story with a 5-3 win in 9 innings against the Planets, capturing the first WPIAL championship in program history.

"Honestly, I never really even paid attention to the seeding," coach Heidi Karcher said. "There are 15 teams in the playoffs, all of them are good. Mars was a very, very, very tough team. They were a good ball team, just as good as the one seed. I don't think we faced an easy opponent the entire playoffs."

Thomas Jefferson (16-6) then defeated District 6 champion Bellefonte, 8-3, in the PIAA first round Monday at Baldwin High School. That victory advances the Jaguars to the state quarterfinals, a rematch with Greensburg Salem, which defeated Warren, 2-0. They'll meet at noon today at Baldwin.

Thomas Jefferson faced perhaps its biggest challenge in the WPIAL semifinals against defending champion Greensburg Salem, which was unbeaten against Class AAA competition entering the contest.

Trailing, 2-1, entering the seventh inning, Kyla Prickett blasted a solo shot to tie the game and the Jaguars took advantage of an error and wild pitch to score the go-ahead run and an insurance run they would need as they held on for the 4-3 win.

"I really think there are a couple things working in our favor," Karcher said. "I can't put my finger on it. I want to say there is something like a spiritual aspect to this team. There is a certain vibe, some might call it a little bit of fairy dust. There is something surrounding us, it is a good feeling."

In the WPIAL final, things went down to the wire once again. Tied, 3-3, in the ninth inning, Thomas Jefferson once again capitalized on an opponent's mistake.

Standing on second base, Bayli Moon tagged up and headed for third on a Lacie Lautner flyball. The throw to third base bounced short and off target. Moon took off for home plate to score the go-ahead run.

Prickett, the hero from the semifinals, drove in an insurance run with an RBI single. That along with a two-run home run in the third inning gave Prickett three RBIs on the day. It was Prickett and Moon who had the most consistent bats in the lineup throughout the postseason run for the Jaguars.

Early this season with her team sitting at 6-0 and off to a 2-0 start in section play, Karcher was quick to remind everyone just how young her team was and how young the season was.

Almost on cue the Jaguars dropped their next two section games and four of their next six. But the young team matured throughout the season and in the section finale against Elizabeth Forward, needing a win to secure the section's final playoff berth, the Jaguars responded with a 3-2 victory against the rival Warriors.

Lautner, a sophomore pitcher, threw all the innings in the postseason.

"I think in the first inning [of the WPIAL final], the nerves finally got to her," Karcher said. "She was a little nervous but overall she has been handling everything very, very well."

Earlier this season after her team got off to a 2-0 start in section play, Karcher said, "so far so good but it is really early so anything can happen."

In these playoffs the Jaguars certainly proved that.

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