---- — Before the season was even close to starting this past winter, fans in Warrior Run were coming up to coach Garth Watson and telling him that now that Mifflinburg moved out of the HAC-II and up a division to Class AAA, it'd lift the monkey off the backs of the Defenders, so to speak.
All Watson could do was just chuckle a little bit.
Mifflinburg and Warrior Run had their battles last year, going roughly 30 innings with the Defenders outscoring them last year by only a run or so through all their meetings. The Defenders may be a bit happy overall that Mifflinburg's no longer in the HAC-II and Ali Lloyd took her dominance in the circle up to the HAC-I, but that doesn't mean Warrior Run got off easy and will run away with the HAC-II.
Warrior Run is well aware of that and Tuesday afternoon was the perfect example of why Watson just had to laugh a little when fans told him Mifflinburg moving up would take the monkey off their back.
"We lost Mifflinburg and now us and Southern are going to battle," Warrior Run ace Taylor Parker said after Tuesday's 3-2 win over the Tigers.
Southern Columbia jumped out to a 2-0 lead against the defending Class AA state finalists thanks to two deep doubles into left field -- one by Erin Yoder to bring a run home in the second inning and another by ace pitcher Mallory Tomaschik to score another in the fifth.
Gabby Shrawder came up big for the Defenders in the fifth and seventh innings with home runs to almost the same spot both times into left field, the second being a walk-off in a 2-2 game.
The Defenders and Tigers are two very similar teams. Both have dominant pitchers (Warrior Run's Parker, Southern Columbia's Tomaschik), both have stellar defenses that can make plays and they both obviously can hit the ball.
But the Tigers knew it'd be a challenge going from Class A to AA and were more than aware of how tough the new competition would be.
Southern Columbia's tough 3-2 loss on Tuesday comes just shortly after HAC-II foe Central Columbia pummeled the Tigers, 23-0, holding Southern Columbia's potent offense to just one hit. The Blue Jays lost this season to the Defenders, 13-8.
"There's no doubt (Class AA has tougher competition). The double-A teams are better," Southern Columbia coach Al Cihocki said after Tuesday's loss to Warrior Run. "They got more kids to pick from; they've got better pitching and stuff like that. It's a challenge. We've played Class AA teams before and beat some real good teams years ago. ... We don't shy away from anybody. This is a good game."
Southern Columbia shouldn't hang its head about Tuesday's tough loss either, especially when taken into consideration that entering said game, Parker had thrown two one-hitters and a no-hitter.
In other words, in half of Parker's six games entering Tuesday's contest she allowed just two total hits. The Tigers walked away with two runs and six hits -- five of which were doubles.
Not shying away is precisely the type of attitude Southern Columbia has embraced, and for the Tigers and Defenders this year, these tough games down to the wire are what they like. It's that tough field of play in the league that allows teams to get better, and according to Watson, it was a large reason the Defenders got to the Class AA title game last year in State College.
"This (HAC) Division II is solid and every night you have to come play and it makes us better," Watson said after Tuesday's win. "When we made our run last year it was a tribute to the teams in Division II because there could've been a Loyalsock or a Central or a Mifflinburg right there doing what we did. That's good for us."
"Every night in the league's like a playoff game. That's going to make us better," Watson added.
Facing the tough teams in the HAC-II such as Central Columbia, Loyalsock, Montoursville and South Williamsport not only will make Warrior Run better, but Southern Columbia, too.
Come playoff time, that tough schedule will benefit both.
n Jon Gerardi covers high school softball for The Daily Item. Email comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JonGerardi.