UNIVERSITY PARK — Many of the members of the newly crowned PIAA champion Lady Bison got a taste of playing on the state’s biggest stage five years ago when the Clearfield Major Division softball team competed in the Little League State Tournament in St. Marys.
Clearfield came up short, falling to Morrisville 15-0 in the tournament final.
But that experience likely planted the seeds for what the Lady Bison varsity softball team accomplished Friday with their 3-2 victory over Tunkhannock.
Heading into Friday’s game, that Little League experience was certainly on some of the minds of the Lady Bison, including senior Alexis Bumbarger, who had the game-winning hit against Tunkhannock.
“I think we’ve wanted this ever since we were in that Little League state title game,” Bumbarger said. “This morning I said, ‘I’m reminiscing on our Little League state title game right now, but this time we’re going to win.’ I’ve never been so proud of a group of girls in my life.”
“It’s unreal honestly,” Clearfield senior pitcher Emma Hipps said. “We’ve been in the state championship in Little League, and we didn’t win. We got 10-run ruled and I didn’t get to pitch that game, so this means everything to me.
“For me, it (state title goal) was even before that. Ever since I started playing softball, I knew this is where I want to be, and for my last chance, this is awesome.”
Bumbarger, Hipps and classmates Olivia Bender, Kylee Hertlein and Lauren Ressler along with junior Alaina Fedder played together on that 2017 Little League team.
Seniors Alexis Benton and Alexis Cole weren’t on the 2017 second-place Little League squad, but became key members of the varsity program. Benton started as a freshman in 2019 along with all the now senior girls that were on the Little League team.
The Lady Bison lost in the state semis their freshman year despite an epic performance from Hipps in the circle. Hipps threw 54 of her first 55 pitches for strikes that day and her 73-pitch performance ended with an amazing 68 strikes and just five balls.
But the Lady Bison fell to Bald Eagle Area 1-0 when the Lady Eagles walked it off with just their second hit of the game.
Then Clearfield lost the promising next season to COVID.
So this group is no stranger to adversity, but always kept their eyes on the prize.
“We’ve been in this situation many, many times,” Ressler said. “Freshmen year when we made it to the state semis and we thought we had it, but we thought we had it too soon. We really thought we could take it all the way our sophomore year, but unfortunately COVID took it away from us.
“This year we had a lot of confidence in the team that we had and we knew that we were going to take it all the way. This was our last chance. It was now or never.”
So when the Lady Bison were down a run in the fifth in their PIAA opener against Franklin, or behind defending state champion Beaver by a run in the sixth of the PIAA semis or trailing perennial power Tunkhannock by two runs in the fifth of the state finals, they never wavered. They knew they’d come back.
“I just know what our hitters can do,” Hipps said. “I know we can put runs on the board. We’ve been down, we know that we can come back.”
“We get down on ourselves, but at the same time we know how to pick each other up,” Bumbarger said. “I think that is a great quality to have as a team. We don’t put people down or give up on anybody on our team. We work together to get out of those hard situations.”
Lady Bison head coach Derek Danver says the team’s confidence and togetherness was a big key to them being able to achieve their ultimate goal.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “They believed it the whole time. When they set the goal, it wasn’t like we were just setting a goal because we needed to. This was something they were working for all year. Something that they believed. The coaching staff believed in these girls all year long and they believed in themselves as well.”
And that belief turned into a history-making accomplishment for a group of girls set on this journey five years ago.
“It’s awesome,” Hipps said. “I wouldn’t want to do it with anybody else.”
“It’s great,” Ressler said. “No team from Clearfield has ever made it this far and knowing that we’re the first is the best feeling an athlete could feel.”
And it’s a feeling that is even better than the Lady Bison ever imagined.
“This feels so much better than I thought it would,” Bumbarger said. “All night last night I couldn’t fall asleep and I just kept envisioning us either winning or losing and I thought, ‘we have to win. We have to prove to Clearfield County that we can do great things.’”