Milton senior Kristi Weaver stared stone-faced into the catcher's mitt of Mackenna Miller, one strike out away from returning the Black Panthers to the peak of District 4 Class AAA softball after a brief two-year absence.
The senior snapped the ensuing pitch from her hip with the focus of a Queen's Guard member. As the home-plate umpire raised his arm for a strike three call, Weaver's face softened and her pearly whites glistened under the sunshine covering Elm Park on Thursday as her final strikeout clinched a 6-3 Milton victory over surprising finalist Athens.
"This meant the world to all of us," said Weaver.
The Black Panthers will play in the PIAA tournament for the first time since 2009 on Monday against the District 2 champion Valley View at Marywood University.
"This feels great," said Milton coach Bill Keefer. "It feels good because only three of these girls were ever part of a gold medal."
Weaver, Madison Krebs and Justine Marks were freshmen the last time the Black Panthers celebrated a district championship. The past two years have ended in losses to Jersey Shore in the district final.
Milton (17-5) avoided being a bridesmaid for a third consecutive season with a three-run sixth inning.
The inning began with Linea Brouse reaching on an error. The hustling junior gave Milton runners at first and second after beating out a fielder's choice at second base and a wild pitch put her and Bethany Brennan in scoring position. A cue ball off the bat of Taylor Batman scored Brouse and gave Milton a one-run lead, 4-3.
"At first I was mad because I figured I'd get out, but then... I'm going to states," said Batman, "so it's good."
Not satisfied, the Black Panthers added two more runs on a sacrifice fly by pinch-hitter Kate Gensel and another Athens error.
Weaver, giving the lead a second time, made it stand in the seventh. She retired the Wildcats in order and sandwiched a groundout between two strikeouts to end the game.
Weaver, who threw a perfect game during Wednesday's semifinal win over Danville, struck out six and allowed five hits.
She danced around trouble in the first inning, working out of a bases-loaded jam, but couldn't avoid damage in the fourth with her team leading 2-0.
A single, fielder's choice and sacrifice bunt put two runners in scoring position and No. 8 hitter Kiersten Horton delivered an 0-2 pitch inside the first-base line and into the outfield grass that scored both runners and tied the game. A throwing error from the outfield allowed Horton to reach third base and she scored on a well-placed Searah Kennedy bunt, that was fielded by the catcher.
"Our AD asked me if I was nervous and I said, no I was more ticked because we lost focus for an inning of defense," said Keefer. "We've played great defense all year long, so I was a little upset."
Milton responded immediately in the bottom of the fifth and tied the game. Peyton Phillips was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning. A Mary Adams sacrifice pushed Phillips into scoring position, but she was nearly erased after taking an aggressive turn around second base. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, Phillips slightly turned her shoulders to the right, put her head down and sprinted to third base. The throw was delivered behind her at second base and she reached Keefer at third with only one out.
Miller delivered a sacrifice fly to center to tie the game. Phillips needed to take a few steps back to tag and it appeared initially Athens was going to have a legitimate play at the plate, but the center fielder double-clutched the throw and allowed Phillips to score rather easily.
Athens didn't threaten after scoring three times in the fifth. Weaver sat down the Wildcats in order over the final three innings and she retired the last 11 hitters she faced.
"Once we got down we just realized that we have to pick it up and then we realized that we weren't going to let anything else happen," said Weaver.
Athens000 300 0 - 3 5 4
Milton011 013 x - 6 5 1
Katelyn Serfass, Christin Dunkling (3), Alexa Daddona (6) and Jenn Wells. Kristi Weaver and Mackenna Miller. W - Weaver. L - Daddona.
Top Milton hitters: Miller 1-3, run, RBI; Justine Marks 2-3, RBI.
Records: Milton 17-5, Athens 14-8.