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SOFTBALL: PCL Quarterfinals...Here They Come

By John Knebels (photos by Kathy Leister), 05/19/21, 1:15AM EDT


By John Knebels

Photos by Kathy Leister


PHILADELPHIA – The pop-up landed in the glove of Little Flower freshman first baseman Megan Dugan, and just like that, John W. Hallahan had played its last softball game ever.

After the Mighty Micks congratulated the host Sentinels with fist-pumps and retreated to their bench Monday afternoon, emotions flowed. Across the field, Little Flower celebrated a 2-1 Catholic League pre-quarterfinal victory, doing so with appropriate aplomb.

“I know how it feels, and it’s not a nice feeling,” said Little Flower junior Kendall Szor. “I went to St. Basil’s at the start of this year, and they’re also closing at the end of the year. I just hope the best for all of them.”

Before the game, the Sentinels – their hair partly donned in Hallahan-colored sky blue ribbons – presented their adversaries with red roses. It was a classy gesture to say the least.

The game itself was a nail-biter for both teams and the decent-sized crowd that found a place to stand or sit. Little Flower seized a 1-0 lead in the first inning on an RBI single by Dugan that scored freshman Allie Szychulski. Hallahan tied it in the third on a sacrifice fly by senior Paris Balilonis that scored sophomore Faith Scally. The Sentinels answered in their half when a perfectly placed Szychulski grounder to the right side plated Szor, who had led off with a single.

Little Flower vs. Hallahan PCL First Round Game Highlights by John Knebels:

L-R: Allie Szychulski, Kendall Szor & Jackie Forsythe celebrate win, praise their opponent:

That was the end of the scoring, but the excitement was just getting started.

In the fifth, Hallahan loaded the bases with two outs but couldn’t score. Then came the sixth, a half inning that carried more drama than a Martin Scorsese-directed blockbuster.

After sophomore Kirstyn Neal singled and junior Abby Nicholas walked, sophomore catcher Emma Bannon wowed the crowd when she worked a 12-pitch walk to load the bases with no outs.

Though disappointed with the loss, sophomore catcher Emma Bannon describes her 12-pitch walk in the 6th inning:

Hallahan coach Brian Sitongia and Little Flower coach Mark Fusetti appreciate historic playoff contest for different reasons

“I got in my head a lot,” said Little Flower junior pitcher Jackie Forsythe. “I knew I had to breathe and just know that I can do it.”

Forsythe struck out the next batter and induced a fly ball to super-shallow left field. Hallahan senior Halle Mawhinney, who earlier had singled and walked, then hit a hard grounder to short. Szor made a fundamentally perfect stab on the low roller and fired a laser to Dugan for the final out.

Despite long odds, Little Flower had maintained its lead.

“When they had the bases loaded and no outs and we didn’t let them score, that was amazing,” said Szor “I just reacted. I just always run through my head a thousand times where the play is so I don’t mess up. I knew there were two outs and I had to get one.”

In the seventh, Forsythe executed the game’s only 1-2-3 frame. Balilonis and sophomore Brynne Tomaszewski flew out to Szychulski in center. On the last at bat in school history, the Little Flower-bound Lawrence, who pitched a fantastic game – surrendering only three hits, one earned run, and four walks while striking out eight – popped out to first, thus becoming the answer to a trivia question that she would prefer never needed to be asked.

In a post-game interview, Hallahan lone seniors Balilonis and Mawhinney held back tears. They said their greatest memory would be thinking back to the many teammates with whom they experienced victory and defeat.

Forsythe hopes they and their teammates realize how well they performed in their final game.

“They played amazing,” said Forsythe. “They were a good team to play against. I just wish all of them luck, and for the girls that come here, just know that we support them and we are here for them.”

The Philadelphia Catholic League . . . at its finest.

The High school careers of Hallahan seniors Paris Balilonis and Halle Mawhinney ended way too quickly (Videos by John Knebels)

Regular Season Gives Way to Playoffs

Despite the well-founded concerns and periodic hardships associated with the coronavirus, the Catholic League completed its entire schedule.

Major kudos.

Smartly, the decision makers allowed all 10 teams to qualify for the playoffs, with the top six finishers being granted byes while the other four participated in a pre-quarterfinal.

In addition to eight-seed Little Flower edging nine-seed John W. Hallahan, seven-seed Cardinal O’Hara stopped 10-seed Lansdale Catholic behind a potent hitting attack led by Maeve Boston, Leah DiGiandomenico, and Meredith Hannigan

“Although it was definitely a rebuilding year after losing a lot of upperclassmen, a few underclassmen stepped into crucial roles in the infield – specifically (sophomore) Sage Borro at third base, (sophomore) Ella Moran at shortstop, and (sophomore) Sam McHugh and (freshman) Catie Tomlinson as catchers – and showed a lot of promise for the upcoming season,” said Lansdale Catholic senior Kait Leshak, who missed several weeks with a back injury. “It was definitely tough stepping in as starting pitcher after three years of playing first base for the team, but when I got hurt and we had to find someone to fill in, we had to remember at the end of the day that PCL sports are about teamwork and giving it your all.

“Although my years as an underclassman were marked by winning seasons and PCL runs, the focus this year was more on the future of the team. We should see improvement next year, as we found a solid infield at the end of the season and have a promising freshman pitcher coming up next year – my sister, Lauren Leshak.”

On Wednesday, the league quarterfinals begin, with undefeated Archbishop Ryan (9-0) hosting eight-seed Little Flower (2-7); two-seed Archbishop Carroll (8-1) hosting seven-seed Cardinal O’Hara (3-6); three-seed Conwell-Egan (6-3) hosting six-seed Bonner-Prendergast (4-5); and four-seed St. Hubert (6-3) hosting five-seed Archbishop Wood (5-4).

Perhaps more than in any other year – at least in recent memory – there are a handful of teams that have what it takes to win the next three and be crowned champion on May 26 at South Philadelphia’s FDR Park.

It wasn’t until the final week that the playoff smoke began to clear. Because so many of its games had been postponed because of COVID concerns, St. Hubert was forced to play six games in seven days. The Bambies’ fate would determine where four other teams would finish in the standings.

“We know it was a busy week,” said Hubert senior pitcher Emily Murphy. “Going game by game has been our goal.”

At one point, the Bambies won six straight, improving to 6-1 and clinching a home playoff game on May 13 after edging visiting Archbishop Wood, 4-2. After giving her team a two-run single as part of a three-run second inning, Murphy took a shutout into the seventh.

St. Hubert vs. Wood highlights by John Knebels:

The Vikings, who had left two runners on base in the second, third, and fifth innings, rebounded in the seventh with two runs via a two-run single by sophomore Riley Nolan. The loss diminished a superb effort by Wood sophomore pitcher Dakota Fanelli, who in six innings struck out 10 while surrendering only three hits, two walks, and no earned runs.

Gianna Grassifulli scored two of St. Hubert’s runs in 4-2 win over Wood:

Double threat Emily Murphy dominated win with her pitching and timely hitting.

Hubert coach Dan Milio is impressed with his team’s 4th win in 4 days & 6th straight overall:

Fanelli, who leads the Vikings in hitting with a .575 batting average, comprehends the big picture.

“I try to focus on the growth of our team and celebrate the improvements from one game to the next,” said Fanelli. “Some people might only see the win at the end of the game, instead of the little accomplishments we make every game. We are a young team and we are learning a lot through every game, and I know that next year we are going to come back stronger due to the adversity we are going through now.

“A wise person once told me that you have to learn how to lose before you truly know how to win.”

One day after losing to Conwell-Egan on May 15, Hubert faced visiting Archbishop Carroll in the Catholic League’s final contest of the regular season. A Hubert win would solidify a second seed in the playoffs; a loss would drop Hubert to fourth. Carroll would place second with a win and third with a loss.

After five innings, the game was tied at 3-3. What appeared to be a game heading toward the wire turned ugly in the sixth when Carroll sent 11 batters to the plate and scored eight runs.

Arch. Carroll vs. St. Hubert Game Highlights by John Knebels:

Though a two-run single by sophomore Molly Devenney provided Carroll some breathing room, the huge blow was a grand slam by senior Sophia Spurio, a liner to right center that kept on rolling and allowed Emma Lamlin, junior Cheyenne Niehoff (4 for 5, three runs scored), and junior Maya Preston (2-4, home run, three RBI) to score in front of her.

Archbishop Carroll coach Mike Lorine was more than pleased with his team’s performance vs. Hubert's (Videos by John Knebels):

L-R: Cheyenne Niehoff, Maya Preston, Molly Devenney & Sophia Spurio describe their key offensive contributions:

“As soon as I hit it, I was thinking grand slam,” said Spurio. “It hit the sweet spot. It felt so good. I was running around the bases with a big smile on my face.

“We didn’t know how big this game was until the last minute when we saw how well (Hubert) was doing. Then we realized we have to beat this team if we want a good spot in the playoffs. That’s what we did. Now we have momentum going into the playoffs.”

Conwell-Egan finished with six victories in their last seven games. In their last four wins, the Eagles have outscored their opponents by 56-6.

I believe our team worked together and came in as the underdogs,” said sophomore pitcher Ahlana Sesar. “Many teams doubted us in the beginning of the season, but everyone on our team, including the freshmen, really clicked together when we needed to. Especially with COVID circumstances, we pushed through as a team and worked as hard as we could every day.”

Sophomore Katey Brennan agreed. 

“After starting our PCL games going 0-2, it is very exciting to finish the regular season in third place,” said Brennan. “We felt like we turned things around when we got to 2-2 with that tough win over Wood. The loss to Ryan was a setback, but we didn’t play our best, with a lot of errors.

“Our bats were hot the last three games, and we won each by at least 10 runs. It feels good to end the regular season on a winning streak, and we hope we can keep it going.”

The third-seed Eagles will face six-seed Bonner-Prendergast, which beat visiting Conwell-Egan, 13-5, on April 20. Though 4-5, the Pandas are dangerous. Among their five losses was a 9-8 squeaker against undefeated Archbishop Ryan.

“We played a lot of tight games,” said Pandas coach Tom McNulty. “Two one-run losses to Ryan and Hallahan. Tied late with Wood and Carroll (8-8 into the seventh). Hopefully, we got the kinks out.”

Brennan hopes just the opposite.

“Prendie was a tough opponent for us the last time we played them, but we are looking forward to getting another chance for a win,” she said. “Having home field advantage should help us.”

Let the games begin.


(Contact John Knebels at or on Twitter @johnknebels.)