The Armstrong varsity softball team fell just short in the PIAA 5A championship game, but their run in 2021 will be forever etched into the program's history books
By Josh Shreckengost
The Armstrong River Hawks varsity softball team pose following their PIAA 5A runner-up finish at Penn State last week. The team went 18-6 en route to finishing second in the state, by far the best season in program history. Photo courtesy of the Armstrong River Hawks Softball Facebook page.
Kittanning, Pa. -- Doug Flanders knew his team would be good in 2021, but the Armstrong varsity softball head coach had no idea just how good.
Flanders took over a struggling program, but he and his team lost the 2020 season due to the pandemic. With a young, unproven squad full of talent, it was anybody's guess how the River Hawks would play in 2021.
"I thought we had a good team, I just didn't know how good we would be," Flanders said. "I knew our offense would be tough and I knew we had a lot of really talented girls and they just kept getting better and better as the year went on and their confidence kept growing with every win."
The River Hawks wasted little time putting the WPIAL on notice when they homered three times in the team's home opener, a 5-2 win against Freeport all the way back on March 26. Over the next two and a half months, Armstrong mashed a team record 43 home runs and powered their way to the program's first-ever WPIAL and PIAA playoff appearances.
"That offense took us all the way to the end," Flanders said. "It gave us a chance to play in the very last game of the high school season."
While Armstrong fell to Lampeter-Strasburg, 10-7 in the PIAA 5A championship, the maturity and cohesion the team found during its historic run was truly special to watch for Flanders, his coaches and the fans of the program. Flanders himself knew that he had something incredible on his hands when his River Hawks mercy-ruled Franklin Regional four days after that season-opening win against Freeport.
"When we pounded Franklin Regional on March 30 and we beat them 17-2 and Franklin Regional is a powerhouse in the WPIAL and our section, I thought to myself, 'We're definitely going to be in the playoffs and we're capable of making a run,'" Flanders said.
And on a run they went. Following victories over South Fayette, Indiana and Fox Chapel in the WPIAL playoffs, the River Hawks fell to North Hills, a loss they would avenge in the PIAA semifinals. Armstrong also beat District III state qualifiers Twin Valley and Exeter Township in the first two rounds of the PIAA tournament.
For Flanders and his coaching staff, they walked a delicate line between watching a young team mature while keeping those players' emotions in check. Designated player Riley Kilgore was the only senior who got starting playing time while the River Hawks started freshmen and sophomores at key positions all over the diamond. With such a young, inexperienced squad, the Armstrong coaching staff played therapists just as often as they played softball instructors.
"The biggest challenge for us was just trying to keep everybody calm," Flanders said. "We didn't want them to get too high or too low or too emotional. When things started to go bad, we tried to keep them level-headed and focused on the task at hand. It wasn't easy, but we just tried to keep them focused on the next challenge and keep reminding them that these playoff games were just like any other game."
Though the River Hawks came up one victory short of capturing the first team state championship in school history, the future is certainly bright. The entire core of the team will be returning in 2022 and for a squad which hit .376 as a team this season, Flanders knows that his girls are more than capable of making a similar and possibly more successful run in 2022.
"[The loss to Lampeter-Strasburg in the PIAA 5A championship] is going to make them hungry," Flanders said. "Just to be on that stage and show everyone that they can do it, they got a taste of it and now they really want it. Next year, we're going to try to improve. I already know that lots of them have already been practicing and playing in their travel tournaments. They don't stop, they're going to keep working. I try to tell them to never be satisfied and now some eyes have been opened and we're starting to get some recognition, but they all need to do better than they did this year and they've set the bar very high."