WILKES-BARRE?- It was almost a year ago to the date Williamsport gutted out a difficult win over Wallenpaupack to claim the school's first District 2-4 Class AAAA title since 2007.
And with that knowledge, and a hunger for a deeper run in the PIAA tournament, Williamsport survived another difficult challenge, needing a bunt in the bottom of the seventh from an unlikely source.
Marissa Crane, who spent most of the season with the junior varsity team before being called up for the postseason, spent the entire game in the dugout before Quint Bower called on her for an at-bat with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh.
Despite the size of the moment, Crane put down a perfect bunt, giving Dominique Thomas just enough time to slide home and give No. 1 Williamsport a 1-0 win over No. 3 Hazleton to claim its second title in as many years. Williamsport will face Pennsbury at noon Monday in Bloomsburg.
"I was a little nervous," Crane said. "I'm pretty confident in my bunting and I was excited to do the job for the team. It was exciting to come off the bench and help with the win."
"We told the kids coming into today it was going to be a matter of who did the little things right," Williamsport coach Quint Bower said. "We stepped it up at the end. I knew if we could get Alexis or Dominique, two of the faster runners on the team, to third we'd bunt them home."
A deeper look at the two teams and its easy to see why the match-up was so intriguing for fans. In last season's meeting in the District 2-4 semifinals Williamsport benefited from a serve storm which stopped the contest in the seventh inning, moments after the Cougars secured a 3-2 advantage.
Despite waiting nearly two hours, the game was ultimately called. That reverted the score back to the sixth inning, giving Williamsport the 2-1 victory.
Thomas, who technically didn't register an at-bat throughout the course of Thursday's game, reached full counts in each of her three plate appearances.
"It was about being patient and waiting for my pitch," Thomas, who finished third on the team with six walks in the regular season, said. "I fouled off a couple pitches, but had to get one I really wanted to hit and didn't."
The senior center fielder, often tagged as one of the fastest players on the team, became Williamsport's first base runner after getting a walk on six pitches to open the second inning.
"Dominique had a very good day today," Quint Bower said.
The walk did little damage as Becky Demko struck out the next three batters, making Thomas the first of three Millionaire runners stranded over the next two innings.
Demko pitched her way out of a similar situation in the fourth when two consecutive walks gave Williamsport runners in scoring position with one out. And as the pressure increased with each scoreless inning, Demko reared back, getting the next two batters to bite on off-speed pitches.
The Hazleton ace struck out eight, while allowing three hits.
On the other side of the field was Williamsport's top arm in Alexis Bower. And, in what is becoming a common scene in these playoffs, Bower was outstanding.
"There was some weight on my shoulders, but our defense was playing well and my pitches were really working today," Bower said. "It's really nerve-wracking, but I just step back and look up and relax. It's all I can do."
As an encore to her 14-strikeout performance to open district play, Bower fanned 11 batters, limiting Hazleton to one hit on 22 plate appearances.
"I trust my coach to call the right pitches and I trust in everyone around me," Bower said. "I just have to execute to the best of my ability."
Bower opened the sixth with a hard hit single down the left field line, but was called out to end the inning on a controversial call to end the inning.
Hazleton's lone hit, a bloop single just out of the reach of Thomas in centerfield, nearly gave the Cougars the lead after a sacrifice bunt and past ball moved Ashley Donlin to third.
Donlin, who nearly became the first run credited to Bower in her last three outings, was stranded when a pop-out to Taylor Brooks ended the scoring threat.
Hazleton 000 000 0-0 1 1
Williamsport 000 000 1-1 3 0
Becky Demko and Justine Rossi. Alexis Bower and Heather Inners.
WP-Bower (17-3). LP-Demko.
Top Hazleton hitters: Ashley Donlin 1-2. Top Williamsport hitters: Dominique Thomas run; Marissa Crane 1-1, RBI.
Records: Hazleton 18-6. Williamsport 18-3.
Next: Opening round of PIAA Class AAAA softball championships at Bloomsburg University at noon.