Avonworth’s Sarah Helffrich bashed a grand slam to force a mercy-rule victory for the Antelopes in the WPIAL Class 3A championship game against Keystone Oaks last week. She followed that up with a 4-for-4 performance in the first round of the PIAA playoffs Monday, an 8-1 romp against Fort LeBoeuf. In both games, she was the winning pitcher.
It sure seems like Helffrich is on a tear, but really it’s nothing new. The senior has been coming up big in big games for a long time.
When she was 12 years old playing for a traveling team in a national tournament, Helffrich hit a grand slam with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning to win the game. Ever since then she has procured, and lived up to, the legend of a clutch player.
“The brighter the lights, the better she is,” said Avonworth coach Jenna Muncie. “She loves it.”
What makes a player clutch? Muncie said that for Helffrich, it’s all about playing her game no matter how high the stakes.
“She’s really able to control her emotions,” Muncie said. “She’s one of those kids that digs really deep to stay focused and takes it one pitch at a time and one inning at a time. She’s very even keel.”
That was one display during a most unusual at-bat against Keystone Oaks. The game was suspended during Helffrich’s fourth at-bat. She was facing a 3-0 count with the bases loaded in the fifth inning May 29. The game resumed the following morning and Helffrich crushed the second pitch she saw over the fence.
Through the regular season, Helffrich, the third hitter in Avonworth’s lineup, batted .525, with three homers and a team-leading 30 RBIs. Her pitching record was 8-2.
It has been a season of firsts for the Antelopes (21-2 through Monday). Both the district title and state playoff victory were firsts for the school.
Most of the players competed together in the local recreation leagues as youngsters. Muncie said that created a bond among the players and also taught them each other’s strengths. Helffrich’s teammates know to just get on base and, chances are, she will drive them home. In addition to that grand slam in the WPIAL title game, Helffrich also ripped a pair of doubles.
While Helffrich makes it look easy on the field, off the field has been anything but. When Helffrich was a sophomore, her mother, Amy, passed away after a bout with cancer. Muncie said that no matter how much Helffrich has gone through, she continues to play the part of a leader to her classmates and a role model to the underclassmen.
“She’s a special player and also a special kid,” said Muncie.
The Pioneers have put up plenty of numbers throughout the past four years. One statistic that really puts their recent dominance into perspective was achieved Monday with an 8-1 triumph against Rockwood in the first round of the PIAA Class 1A playoffs.
That victory put the Pioneers’ record at 20-4, marking the fourth consecutive season that West Greene has won at least 20 games. During that four-year span, the Pioneers have gone 95-11. Some of those losses have come in out-of-state tournaments and in non-section games against larger schools.
It has been a remarkable run for the senior class, a “special group” for coach Bill Simms and one that has caught the attention of the school and community.
“It’s like we’ve been layering a cake,” Simms said after Monday’s victory. “We’re hoping to put another layer of icing on the top.”
West Greene has won the past four WPIAL titles as well as the past two state championships. The Pioneers extended their remarkable playoff win streak to 18 after Monday’s triumph.
In addition to Avonworth, a few other local teams picked up their first-ever win in the state playoffs.
Keystone Oaks, which lost to the Antelopes in the 3A district championship, bounced back to blank Girard, 8-0. Brianna Butler struck out 15 for the Golden Eagles in that game.
Laurel, which has been crowned the WPIAL champion in 2A the past two years, finally broke through with the school’s first PIAA win. Kayla Ruperto shined for Laurel, as she struck out 12.