Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Wachusett Softball Runs Away from Holy Name in Battle of CMass Powers

By John McGruik (@patsfan1313)

This was the last thing you would have come to expect between two of the most historic and successful softball programs in Central Mass.

Rarely do we get an opportunity to witness a pair of powerhouses going head-to-head in the season opener. But, due to some earlier postponements caused by inclement weather, that is what transpired on Tuesday afternoon.

Wachusett Regional and Holy Name, neither a stranger to winning, squared off on a picture perfect, 80 degree afternoon. It is no secret that both programs are quite capable of running the postseason tournament table while vying for a state championship.

However, following Wachusett's stunning 12-0 mercy-ruled victory, it appears the Mountaineers are more-ahead of schedule to do so.

Mountaineers ace pitcher Liz Strasser, one of the best at her trade, stymied the Naps from beginning to end. The senior, already pitching in mid-season form, surrendered no hits and walked just one. Without question, Wachusett realizes that it will need to rely heavily on its right-handed fireballer throughout the season. Surely, if this was an indication of things to come, then watch out for the Mountaineers when June rolls around.

Strasser baffled Holy Name throughout, making the amped up Naps look foolish at times, inducing them to swing at many pitches out of the strike zone. That became most-evident once the Mountaineers built a 7 run lead after two innings. In each of the past two seasons, Wachusett has walked into the Division 1 Central Mass. tournament as the top seed and favorites to win a district title. But on both of those occasions, the Mountaineers fell disappointingly short in their quest, falling to St. Peter-Marian twice, including last season's 14-12 outlandish affair in the quarterfinal round.

"Last year stunk," said senior shortstop Kianna Lloyd, who contributed 3 RBIs on the afternoon. "That is why this year we want to win it even more. Everybody on this team has been working extremely hard. Anybody on this team can be the first hitter, the fourth hitter or the ninth hitter. It doesn't matter because all of us can hit. And with Liv pitching, everyone seems to play a little more calmer and not as stressed."

Obviously, with nearly a year to fester over the elimination loss, Wachusett returns much-hungrier and ready to make amends for a dubious past. Certainly this one-sided triumph over the Naps will help pave the way for another attempt at glory.

"This team is a year maturer," Mountaineers head coach Joe Cataldo said. "We have almost the same players back at the same positions. But we have also filled a few slots. I feel this team is a little more poised then the past couple of years. They've got a little more guts and are certainly more determined. We've come up short the last two years and these girls are so determined to not let another opportunity slip through. To be honest, it surprises me a little in regards to the desire these girls have. On paper we have it all. But when you have that kind of desire and a will to win, there could be no stopping them."

Such a demeanor was put on display against the Naps. Much like Wachusett, Holy Name is a program that has won state titles in the past, and is looking for a return to prominence. But carrying just three seniors, perhaps this program is still a year or two away. However, this young core of skillful players wound up carrying the Naps into the playoffs a year ago. So why not do it again?

"We do have a young team," Holy Name head coach Aimee Lee said. "We have three seniors in which two are starters. Today we played nervous. I told the girls after the game that once we leave this field we are just going to forget about it. We started out against a really strong team today, but now we need to put it behind us. We still have 19 games remaining, so let's see what happens."

Holy Name pitcher Ava Vincequere struggled inside the circle right from the get-go. After surrendering a first inning RBI double to Lloyd, the sophomore endured a heap of trouble the following frame. The Mountaineers, showing excellent patients at the plate, dared Vincequere (10 hits allowed, no strikeouts) to throw something down the middle. Once Vincequere fell behind in the count, she had no choice but to throw belt-high fastballs squarely over the plate. Ever the opportunist, Wachusett took full advantage as it plated six runs to go on top 7-0 and put the game out of reach.

In the inning, the Mountaineers (1-0) got a pair two-run hits from both Strasser (3 RBIs) and Lloyd, as well as a run-scoring single off the bat of Courtney Lanpher. Before the frame was completed, Wachusett sent 10 to the plate. The Mountaineers were also aided by three Holy Name errors in the inning, as its inexperience showed mightily.

"This was our first game coming out and we've been stuck in a gym," Lee said. "But that is not an excuse. We were throwing the ball around and got nervous and we let them get the best of us today."

Vincequere's woes continued into the third. A triple by Brigid Griffin was followed up by an inside-the-park home run from Hallie Martin to make it 9-0. Moments later, a walk to Jordin Laraia would result in another run as Strasser grounded a fastball up the middle for another RBI.

"We had a preseason tournament at Turners Falls this past weekend, so that helped us and the girls really came out hitting today," said Cataldo. "These kids just want to play and to win the first one sets the tone for the season. I ask the girls what their favorite zone is and if they are ahead in the count to wait for their pitch. If they get it, then just drive it and put it somewhere. Don't swing at bad pitches."

Refusing to settle on the lead it had already built, Wachusett was hungry for more runs. In their half of the fourth, the Mountaineers continued their aggressive manner inside the batter's box. Vincequere ran into problems right away, walking the first two batters she faced. But after retiring the next two, it appeared as though the right-hander would finally exit an inning unscathed.

Not so.

No. 9 batter Paige Arvidson dashed those hopes by belting a triple into right field, putting Wachusett ahead by a dozen. With a chance to make early work of the Naps, Strasser did just that, setting down Holy Name (0-1) in order in the top of the fifth to finish this one out.

"The first game of the year can go either way for anybody," Cataldo said. "But in our girls' fashion, they made the plays in the field and came out hitting when they had to. On top of that, Liv did a great job pitching."

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