WILLOW STREET -- The Central York softball team didn't have a ton of expectations entering the 2012 season.
The Panthers were coming off back-to-back early exits from the District 3 playoffs.
Many upperclassmen from those two teams were gone, and Coach Barry Brenneman had to adjust to a much younger team that featured just one senior.
The Panthers, though, shocked nearly everyone with a standout season.
Central claimed both the York-Adams Division I and league playoff crowns. The Panthers followed that up with an extended postseason run in the District 3 playoffs, advancing to the semifinals Wednesday before falling to rival Dallastown.
None of that mattered when the Panthers fought for a coveted berth into the PIAA state playoffs Thursday afternoon against Lower Dauphin. Despite their many successes, the Central players would not be a happy bunch if they left Garrett Field without a victory.
The Panthers rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the fourth inning, but couldn't survive a late rally by the Falcons. Lower Dauphin scored the final three runs of the contest, all with two outs in the bottom of the fifth, to claim a 6-3 triumph in the District 3-AAAA third-place game.
The setback ended Central's surprising season at 21-5, and the tears in the eyes of standout Taylor Rohrbaugh reflected just how much the Panthers wanted a win on Thursday.
"I told them that we had a great season," Brenneman said. "We had nothing to leave here hanging our heads about. We won our division, which I don't think anyone picked us to do, and we won the county, which I think was a great accomplishment."
The loss capped a difficult two days for Rohrbaugh. The sophomore suffered a tough 6-5 defeat to Dallastown in the semifinals, but had to shake that off less than 24 hours later against a talented Lower Dauphin outfit.
Rohrbaugh didn't have her best stuff, but the Falcons were hardly able to make solid contact off the right-hander. The Mid-Penn Tournament champs, however, did manage to string together several hits at the most opportune times.
Lower Dauphin took advantage of a pair of one-out walks and a single to load the bases in the second. Back-to-back singles from Casey Alcorn and Krista Hoffman cleared the bases to help the Falcons erase an early 1-0 deficit.
Both of those hits barely eluded Central defenders, including Alcorn's liner that sailed just over the outstretched glove of shortstop Jordyn Miller.
"A couple of bad breaks for us," Brenneman said.
Miller helped fuel the two-run rally in the fourth with a leadoff double. Two batters later she moved to third on Ally Dziwis' single before scoring on a groundout by Kyla Caruso.
First baseman Darrian Schade, who didn't hit in Wednesday's semifinal loss, showed some power by blasting a laser to the fence in left for a long single that scored Dziwis to tie the contest. That rally energized the Panthers, albeit just temporarily.
"We were all in it then," Miller said. "We thought we were going to have it."
Rohrbaugh was close to escaping the bottom of the fifth without any damage. The Falcons had a runner on third with two outs when Elaine Gross, who struck out in her previous at-bat, drove a one-ball offering into right to plate the go-ahead run. Three more groundball singles followed, and by the time Rohrbaugh retired Alcorn on a flyball, the damage was done.
"It's tough to give up runs like that with two outs," Brenneman said. "I know we like to score runs like that."
Falcon starter Megan Donlan, who opted to play field hockey in college despite being recruited for softball, never really over-powered the Panthers, who collected eight hits. She finished with just four strikeouts, but was greatly aided by some great defense, especially shortstop Alcorn.
"We were hitting the ball and putting the ball in play," said Miller, who had three hits (two doubles, a triple) in three plate appearances. "But their shortstop made a lot of nice plays on us."
After Central went down 1-2-3 in the seventh, the Falcons ran onto the field to celebrate a victory that clinched a berth in the PIAA playoffs. It was the second day in a row that Brenneman and company had to witness such a spectacle, much to their chagrin.
Still, the coach knows that the experience his team gathered this year should pay dividends next year. The Panthers will return everyone on their roster except center fielder Courtney Hastings.
"I'm very proud of them," he said. "I think they did a great job and I told them that. They need to get better and improve for next year now. We want to go further next year."
In total the Falcons collected 10 hits -- all singles -- off Rohrbaugh, who struck out three.
-- Reach Ryan Vander sloot at sports@yorkdis patch.com.