High school competition is always fierce, but never more so than in this year’s Philadelphia Catholic League softball regular season and playoffs.

A campaign that ended in the championship with Archbishop Wood defeating Conwell-Egan on a walk-off run in the bottom of the seventh showed how evenly matched those two teams were; yet, those two squads had finished a respective third and fourth behind top-seed Archbishop Ryan and two-seed Archbishop Carroll.

Talk about a balanced league.

On June 21, representatives from the PCL joined forces to compete in the 17th annual Carpenter Cup softball tournament, sponsored by the Philadelphia Phillies. Along with a chance for players to showcase their talents to college coaches, the two-day event at South Philly’s FDR Park afforded a rare opportunity for former opponents to don the same jerseys and battle the tri-state area’s top talent.

“It’s such an honor to coach the ladies of the PCL,” said head coach Jackie Ecker of Archbishop Wood. “There is so much talent in our league. The players on this team, although foes for the season, really came together and showed that the PCL is a league to be reckoned with.”

Among the league’s 10 programs, eight were represented, as two chose not to join. Rules stipulated that seniors were not eligible to play, and a maximum of three players per school could be part of the league roster.

The PCL handled itself well. In fact, this year’s group became the first PCL team in Cup history to have a lead in each of its three games.

In their first contest, errorless defense and shutout pitching by Cardinal O’Hara freshman Hayden Sissons (4 innings, 5 hits, 2 walks, 5 strikeouts) and St. Hubert junior Maura Gorman (1 inning, 2 hits) led the PCL past Burlington County, 4-3.

Key offensive contributions included Archbishop Carroll junior Lauren Martin’s two hits, double, run batted in, and run scored; Archbishop Wood junior Paige Ross’ RBI double;  St. Hubert junior Alyse Jewell’s single and run scored; and Conwell-Egan junior PCL Most Valuable Player Katey Brennan’s sacrifice fly.

Immediately after their victory, the PCL faced perennially tough Delaware South. After grabbing a 2-0 lead in the second inning and a 3-1 advantage in the third, the PCL allowed two runs in the fifth and fell, 4-3. The PCL almost pulled off the upset fueled by balanced hitting via Ross (2-3, RBI), Brennan (1-3), Martin (1-3), Lansdale Catholic freshman Lauren Leshak (1-2, run scored), Archbishop Carroll junior Maddie Martin (1-1, RBI, walk), and Conwell-Egan junior Molly Milewski (1-2, RBI).

Two hours later and needing a win to advance to the next round, the PCL dropped a 9-1 decision to Delaware North. The PCL did snare a 1-0 lead in the second and was tied 1-1 heading into the bottom of the fourth before Delaware North’s hitting proved too much to overcome. Highlights included hits by Brennan (1-3, double), Milewski (1-1, triple, run scored), and Lansdale Catholic junior Sam McHugh (1-1, RBI), along with solid pitching by Leshak (2 innings, 4 hits, 1 run).

Unlike several Cup coaches who elected to keep some players on the bench for the entire game, Ecker made sure that every PCL representative – 17 in all – played both offense and defense in every game.

“That was very important to me,” said Ecker. “It did not matter the team we played against or the score of the game These girls were there to showcase their talents, and I was adamant that that happen.

“The camaraderie in the dugout helped us compete together regardless of what school we represented.  The Carpenter Cup is meant to be both competitive and fun, and the ladies of the PCL did just what we set out to do.”

Ecker’s juggling of the lineup – not an easy task by any means because Cup administrators wanted all moves to be communicated immediately, necessitating a mad dash up some winding stairs of an adjacent, two-story tower where Cup official scorekeepers pumped pitch-by-pitch data into the scoring app “Game Changer” – required a bit of Tylenol-induced stress, but the affable coach got the job done.

The PCL players appreciated her effort.

“I think that Coach Jackie was really trying to ensure that everybody played,” said Cardinal O’Hara junior Caitlin Jordan. “Everyone brought something essential to the game, and even if you weren’t playing at the time, you knew the team was being taken care of.

“I think at the end of the day, everybody wants to play every inning, but part of the game is being able to trust your teammates to play their best and you have to trust your coaches to do what’s best for the team.”

Aforementioned Lauren Martin agreed.

“It’s important that everyone had the chance to play because all of the PCL players could fully grasp the experience,” said Martin. “It created a better atmosphere knowing that everyone would participate.”

With three pitchers on the team, Ecker had each hurler start one game each.

Ecker’s equal opportunity approach did not go unnoticed.

“This is the way a ‘showcase’ should be,” said O’Hara’s Sissons, a second-team All-Catholic pitcher. “The coaches were fantastic. It was an all around great experience for me.”

Despite having never played together, the PCL was charged with only three errors in 19 innings of defense.

Assistant coach Brian Sitongia of Neumann-Goretti explained why.

“I attribute that to the girls all being very experienced and knowing the fundamentals of the game well enough that they were able to come together and make the proper plays which enabled us to stay in the games,” said Sitongia. “I believe when you have a good group of girls that are talented and all know how to play defense, it can seamlessly comes together, which translates to success on the diamond.”

Ross said she “loved playing with those I have played against during my high school season. Being able to bond with the team, and people I sometimes consider rivals, was a really good experience.”

Brennan, who has travelled to different states during her travel career, enjoyed the experience for the second time, having played in the Carpenter Cup last year. The PCL’s top hitter and center field stalwart would have played as a freshman if the 2020 season had not been cancelled because of COVID.

“The tournament is always great for the exposure and being able to play people from teams that we’ve never been able to play before,” said Brennan. “I was definitely in favor of getting everyone on the field because there were college coaches there, and I think that everyone should have been seen in front of them.

“I attribute the talent of the PCL as the reason for us playing really well without having played together. Also, everyone came together really well right away, and I think that is also a big part in how well we did.”

Archbishop Wood junior Julia Yogis also played in the 2021 Carpenter Cup.

“I did not enjoy it as much as I did this year,” said Yogis. “Last year we got killed all three games. This year was honestly incredible. It was an incredible opportunity to even be there. A college even reached out to me this year.

“I can’t forget about all the amazing people I got to play with. It was an honor playing alongside each and every one of those girls.”

Conwell-Egan junior Molly Milewski was also on last year’s Cup team.

“The entire Carpenter Cup softball program met my expectations,” said Milewski. “It was definitely a cool experience. All of the girls were very nice and the coaches were, too. The field and maintenance staff was quick and efficient. All of the workers were welcoming. I expected to play against some tough teams, and there were. It was great competition.

“I was in favor of getting every athlete in every game the PCL played. We were all selected to represent the Philadelphia Catholic League. Athletes should experience playing with or against some of the most talented softball players in the area.”

Wood junior Riley Nolan said it “only took a couple of hours” before the PCL players bonded as though they were normal teammates, adding that it was particularly “amazing” getting to know Conwell-Egan representatives Brennan and Milewski “because we played them in the championship and it was great to know them and talk to them all day.”

The Carpenter Cup should also carry happy tidings through next spring.

“Being on the same team with some of the people I have competed against was really cool because they were all very nice,” said Brennan. “Next year, I know I’ll be able to say ‘Hi’ to them!”

Speaking of Brennan, Lansdale Catholic’s McHugh was wowed when, during a two-hour break between games two and three, Brennan started spontaneously displaying her heretofore hidden pitching prowess as she fired some fast balls and change-ups to Ross, who later reported that she was “not surprised” that Brennan’s tossing was impressive.

Turns out that Brennan had taken pitching lessons up until high school and last year pitched in relief during a Conwell-Egan PIAA state game.

“All the girls began hysterically laughing because we’ve never seen somebody who is not a pitcher able to do anything like that,” said McHugh. “Then I realized that’s why she was MVP of the Catholic League.”

Catholic League camaraderie at its finest.

***

The rest of the Carpenter Cup team included Little Flower sophomore Allison Szychulski; Archbishop Carroll sophomore Cecilia Weller; Bonner-Prendergast junior Kristin Webb; and Cardinal O’Hara junior Rylie Pellegrino.

***

Contact John Knebels at jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.