Pioneer senior Alexis Robinson connects for a hit in semistate play last weekend. Robinson and the Panthers compete at a second straight IHSAA State Finals on Saturday at Purdue.

The Pioneer softball team is just one win away from recording back-to-back state championships.

The No. 1-ranked Panthers (31-2) face No. 9 Indianapolis Lutheran (20-7-1) at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in the Class A state championship game at Bittering Stadium at Purdue University in West Lafayette.

The Panthers defeated North Central (Farmersburg) 10-1 in last year’s title game to win their first state championship in softball.

The Panthers have been an even more dominant team this season. Their home run hitting prowess earned them a feature in the Indianapolis Star in a recent story titled, “Pioneer softball hits more dingers than most teams in the country.”

But when asked if the Panthers tried to hit home runs when they stepped to the plate, Indiana North All-Star shortstop Alexis Robinson said to the Star, “Really?”

“We try to take the same approach to every at-bat,” she told the Star. “We just want to get on base. We’re not trying to go for that long ball. Walk, base hit, hit by a pitch.”

Sophomore Hailey Gotshall was named the Hoosier North Athletic Conference MVP earlier this week. She pitched the Panthers to their first state title in softball as a freshman last year, when she was already the best pitcher in Class A.

But another freshman has handled most of the pitching duties during this year’s tournament run. Gotshall pitched a one-hit shutout with 17 strikeouts in the Panthers’ sectional opening 9-0 win over North White. But she suffered a ribcage muscle injury during the win and has played first base and is able to bat but has yet to pitch since.

In stepped Hailey Cripe, who may not spin the ball or have the offspeed stuff that Gotshall does, but she throws harder with a blazing 63 mph fastball and is able to overpower opposing hitters. Thus, the Panthers have one of the best 1-2 punches on the mound in the state regardless of class size, and they’re only in the ninth and 10th grades. Gotshall has already committed to pitch at NCAA Division-II University of Southern Indiana.

The Panthers’ only losses this year are to Class 4A power Harrison, which won a sectional title this season, and to Kankakee Valley, which is in Class 4A due to the IHSAA’s success factor.

The Panthers are moving up to Class 2A the next two seasons in softball due to the success factor, just as the football team is.

It’s been a golden era of sports for the Golden Panthers. Reigning Mr. Football Jack Kiser is far from being the only star athlete in the school.

The Panthers are making their third state finals appearance this school year, fifth in the last two years and sixth in three years.

In addition to last year’s state championship in softball, several of the key players were on the Panthers’ state runner-up volleyball team in the fall, including Robinson, Mikenna Landis, Haley Gleitz, Madison Blickenstaff, Mackenzie Walker and Cripe.

All but Robinson were members of the Panthers’ first sectional championship basketball team in 38 years this winter.

Landis is one of the best leadoff hitters and base stealers in the state but she suffered a torn ACL during the sectional basketball win. She had surgery just over three months ago. She has been able to return to the field in a reserve role in the postseason and is 1-for-4 on the season.

Gleitz, who shared Loganland Volleyball Player of the Year honors with Landis, has filled in admirably in the leadoff role. Another volleyball standout, Blickenstaff, has filled in at center field.

The Panthers remain strong up the middle defensively with Robinson at shortstop, Gleitz at second and Walker is an outstanding defensive catcher as a sophomore.

The Panthers are most known for their hitting this year but their pitching and defense is also a key to their success. Gotshall is 20-2 with a 1.58 ERA with 190 strikeouts in 120 innings pitched. Cripe is 11-0 with a 0.39 ERA with 117 strikeouts in 71 innings pitched. Their combined 1.10 ERA ranks ninth in the state.

Their 61 home runs is tied for first with New Palestine, which plays Yorktown in the Class 3A state championship game on Saturday. Pioneer’s 11.3 runs per game also ranks first.

Cripe’s 19 home runs are tied for first in the state with Bremen’s Erin Coffel. Bremen plays Tecumseh in the Class 2A state title game on Saturday. Gotshall’s 17 home runs are the fourth most in the state and her 75 RBIs lead the state by a wide margin.

The Panthers are coached by second-year coach Gabby Thomas, who won a state title in her first season. She happened to play high school softball at Logansport for Hall of Fame coach Herk Hoffman, who started the Pioneer softball program. This is the Panthers’ fifth state finals appearance in softball overall.

The Panthers have shown they can hit one through nine during their tournament run. Their lineup is as follows: Gleitz, Robinson, Gotshall, Cripe, Walker, Blickenstaff, Mackenzie Robinson, Kylie Farris and Anna Parsley. Cassidy Morris is the flex player and starting right fielder.

The Saints enter averaging 7.9 runs per game. They play a lot of bigger schools in Indianapolis and have wins over Lawrence Central, Warren Central, Ben Davis and Scecina this season. Their only nail-biter in tournament play was a 4-3 win over Indianapolis Covenant Christian in a semistate game. Most of their losses this season are to much, much larger schools. Junior Kaylee Gregory is 11-3-1 with a 3.41 ERA with 95 strikeouts in 90 innings pitched. Senior Miranda Dunn is 9-4 with a 3.17 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 81 innings pitched. Lutheran has won two state championships in all sports, both in softball, in 2004 and 2007.

Pioneer defeated No. 11 North Miami 3-2 in sectional play and No. 2 Morgan Township 2-1 in regional play before outscoring No. 12 Cambridge City Lincoln and No. 3 Fremont by a combined 17-2 in semistate play.

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