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Jun. 18—Marty Shade says a version of this every year:

“We play in the toughest small-school division in Pennsylvania.”

The Tri-Valley head softball coach is talking about Division II of the Schuylkill League, a five-team group that includes Williams Valley, Minersville, Nativity, Schuylkill Haven and the Dawgs. Every year that’s eight games against fierce opponents — Minersville (10-1), Williams Valley (3-2), Nativity (0-1) and now Tri-Valley (1) — that have combined for 18 trips to the PIAA state championship game, including 13 gold medals.

Shade speaks the truth.

The quality extends well beyond the division. Pine Grove (1-1) and Upper Dauphin (1-2) have added five more appearances in the state finals and won a gold medal apiece, making the area 15-7 in state championship games. Tri-Valley is the sixth of the 20 teams in the Republican Herald coverage area (the Schuylkill League, plus Upper Dauphin and Hamburg) to play for a state softball championship.

“People talk about Schuylkill League girls’ basketball, but when it comes to state titles, softball rules,” Shade said. “Our division gets us ready for the playoffs. There’s so much talent in the Schuylkill League, it gets you ready.”

Today, at 11 a.m. at Nittany Lion Softball Park, the District 11 champion Bulldogs (24-2) will try to make it 16 gold medals when they take on District 7 champion West Greene (21-2) in the Class A final. A perennial power, the Pioneers have won two of the past four Class A state crowns and are making their fourth appearance in the finals since 2016.

Meanwhile, Tri-Valley is in the finals for the first time in program history and for the first time in the 30 seasons Shade has been head coach.

To prepare, the Dawgs’ itinerary this week included practices Tuesday and Wednesday at home. They planned to travel to the State College area Thursday to see Nittany Lion Softball Park, have a practice and a team meal and stay overnight. The last thing a team needs on championship day is a broken-down bus 50 miles from State College early this morning.

Tri-Valley athletic director Rick Otto tapped into a valuable resource: former Williams Valley head coach and current Vikings assistant Lee Reiser. In 2013, Reiser was in the same position as Shade as Williams Valley made its first trip to the state finals. Reiser stressed making the journey educational and enjoyable as Williams Valley toured the university, visited the Nittany Lion shrine and did some shopping downtown.

Reiser said he gave Otto information about where to go, hotels to stay in, restaurants to look into and other tidbits to make the Dawgs’ trip as fulfilling as possible.

The plan worked for Williams Valley, which pounded defending state champion Neshannock 13-0 in six innings in the 2013 final. The Vikings have returned to the finals four times since, winning two more gold medals.

“Sometimes it happens once in a lifetime,” Reiser said. “He waited 30 years, and I hope he’s successful bringing it home to the Valley.

“I pull for the Valley,” Reiser added. “I want them to win.”

That’s a common feeling across many sports when teams or individuals reach the state level. Local teams and athletes battle during the regular season, but when you get to the state playoffs, coaches and players start rooting for the Schuylkill League.

“It’s great finally to see him get this far, and I hope he gets it,” Minersville coach Jamie Kuehn said. “I hope Tri-Valley brings home the gold. He’s a very deserving coach.”

As for as the game itself, players understandably will be nervous. A smooth trip will help keep the stress level down, and Reiser has one more piece of advice:

“Relax and be yourself,” he said. “Be confident but not overconfident. Be patient and swing at strikes.”

Two years ago, Tri-Valley started five freshmen and struggled through a 7-13 season. COVID-19 wiped out 2020 for everyone.

So starting the 2021 season, Shade and most coaches around the league had no idea what kind of team they would have.

Tri-Valley got off to a strong start, scoring a run in the bottom of the seventh inning on Brittany Rice’s game-winning hit to edge North Schuylkill 4-3 on March 29. That’s the same Spartans who became the District 11 Class 3A runner-up and a state quarterfinalist.

Ten days later, Tri-Valley shut out Minersville 4-0 at Ken Schneck Field.

“I thought we had a chance to be good, and then early in the season we beat North Schuylkill and we beat Minersville 4-0 at their field,” Shade said. “And I’m starting to think, ‘Hey, we might have something here.’ “

Tri-Valley kept playing, kept improving and kept winning. A young team that starts one senior, three juniors, four sophomores and one freshman created a chemistry on the field that became greater than the sum of their parts.

Sydney Schley and Emma Maurer took care of the pitching. The defense and softball IQ became underrated team strengths. And they started to hit. Boy, they really started to hit. Just ask anyone who witnessed the 18-10 victory at Williams Valley on May 6.

“I love these girls,” said sophomore shortstop Gianna Poletti, who hits leadoff and tops the team with a .556 batting average. “They mean everything to me. I’m so proud of them. It’s one heck of a ride. It’s awesome.

“We came a long way,” she added. “As we kept going, we kept getting more confidence, and we just kept getting stronger and stronger.”

The Dawgs started the season 13-0, with their only losses to Minersville in the division and to Pine Grove in the Schuylkill League semifinals. Tri-Valley defeated both of those teams during the regular season.

The schedule provided the tests Tri-Valley needed to reach today’s game. The Dawgs played seven games against teams that advanced to at least the state quarterfinals and went 7-0 against them.

“I didn’t see it coming,” Shade said. “I knew we could be good, but I didn’t know we could be this good.”

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