After a success-filled regular season — 16 wins, a section title and enough no-hitters to last a lifetime — longtime Ligonier Valley softball coach Mark Zimmerman knows nothing is guaranteed in the post-season.
“There’s a lot of excitement, but like I told them, the No. 1 seed is the result of what we have done. That’s not an indication of what we may do,” he said. “They’re happy about it, but they know we’ve got to get back to work.”
Now that softball’s second season is here, the veteran skipper likes his team’s chances to make a deep playoff run. The top-seeded Lady Rams start their quest for a district title at 2 p.m. Wednesday when it takes on California Area at Gateway High School in a first-round WPIAL Class 2A matchup.
Ligonier Valley (16-1) is led by junior ace Madison Griffin, who put together an eye-popping regular season in the circle. She enters Wednesday’s playoff opener with a 13-1 mark, including nine no-hitters, 11 shutouts and three perfect games. In all, Griffin has allowed just five runs all season (four earned) for a 0.31 ERA along with just 13 hits and 24 walks in 90 innings.
Last week, Griffin eclipsed the 200-strikeout mark and tossed another no-hitter as Ligonier Valley blanked Connellsville Area, 7-0, in a home exhibition. She fanned 18 of 25 batters to bump her season total to 211 strikeouts.
“She’s a fierce competitor,” Zimmerman said of Griffin. “She really enjoys the game of softball and she understands what some hitters are trying to do to her. She has excellent command of her pitches and does a good job of spotting her pitches, and I think that’s what led her to be successful.”
“Did anyone think she’d throw that many no-hitters? No, I don’t think so,” he added. “I don’t think anybody thought that. Sometimes, they just happen. If somebody gets a hit or two, it’s not the end of the world, either. She was the first one to congratulate the girl from Serra Catholic who hit a two-run homer off her. She understands that’s part of the game.”
The Lady Rams also boast a strong offense.
Griffin leads the team with a .491 batting average and 26 hits and is tied for the team lead with five doubles. Sophomore Haley Boyd is hitting .479 with 23 hits, three doubles and a team-best 19 RBI. Another top hitter is senior Kailey Johnston, who is hitting .455 with 20 hits, five doubles and nine RBI.
Other top bats include senior Bella Vargulish (.295 average, three doubles, 17 RBI); senior Eden Krouse (.286 average, eight RBI), and sophomore Ruby Wallace, who is hitting .270 with six RBI.
“We’ve been scoring some runs and they’ve been buying into the theory that we try to live by, which is whatever we’ve got to do,” Zimmerman said. “If we’ve got to hit a double, we’ll hit a double. If we’ve got to bunt, we’ll bunt. If we’ve got to run, we’ll run. Whatever the situation calls for, we just want to put runs on the board and get to the sixth or seventh (inning); with the way Maddie’s been throwing, we feel pretty confident.
“(Our) first four batters have really done well and from there on down, those girls have contributed. Bella Schueltz has come up with some big hits, and Cheyenne Piper, as a freshman, has come up with some big hits.”
Ligonier Valley captured the WPIAL Class 2A, Section 2 championship with a blemish-free 11-0 record. The Lady Rams have reached the playoffs for a 12th straight year.
The Lady Rams recently beat a pair of WPIAL Class 5A playoff teams by a combined 12-0 margin, as Griffin led the way. Griffin opened last week with a one-hitter against No. 5 Chartiers Valley, and then threw her ninth no-hitter of the season versus Connellsville Area on Wednesday.
Ligonier Valley averages more than seven runs a game and the team has allowed just five runs. In nine contested section games, the Lady Rams outscored the opposition, 72-2, their lone setback coming in a 3-1 exhibition defeat against Mount Pleasant Area, the top seed in Class 3A.
Zimmerman admitted he didn’t know what to expect this season after the pandemic halted the 2020 spring sports schedule.
“Last year was a year that didn’t exist — we played two scrimmages and the year got scrapped,” he said. “And with COVID, there wasn’t much chance to get the girls together, so when the year starts, you say, ‘This is what you’ve got.’ I think everybody was in the same boat ... it’s worked out well, but it’s certainly not what we expected.”
He’s also happy with his new home in the WPIAL and the strong competition the Lady Rams see day to day after Ligonier Valley moved to District 7 after spending the previous 50 years in PIAA District 6. For the past 20 years, Ligonier Valley was a member of the Heritage Conference, where the Lady Rams won a title in 2019 but lost in the semifinals of the District 6 Class 3A playoffs later that season.
“We’ve been very happy with our section and the competition that was there,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve been very happy with the move; that’s not to say there’s not a lot of good softball teams in District 6, because there are, but we’ve been wanting to come this way for a while.”
If Ligonier Valley wins its first-round playoff game, the Lady Rams would face No. 8 Charleroi Area or No. 9 Neshannock on Monday, May 24, at a site and time to be determined.
WPIAL championship games are scheduled to be played at California University of Pennsylvania during the first week of June.
California Area (6-13), on the strength of three-hit games by Harley Hawkins and Makayla Boda, rolled to a 14-1 victory over Bentworth Monday in a WPIAL preliminary round game. California used a nine-run seventh inning to clinch its first playoff win since 2017.
“What somebody else does is of very little interest to us — we’ve got to take care of ourselves,” Zimmerman said when notified the Lady Rams will open the post-season against California. “If we pitch well, we play defense well and we hit well, we’ll be happy with the outcome. We’re not going to spend a lot of time worrying about what (the opponent) does.”