Monday, May 1, 2017

Wachusett Softball Guts Out a Win Against Turners Falls

By John McGuirk (@patsfan1313)

MONTAGUE - It is a rare occurrence when a Division 1 program is willing to drop down two levels to play a team out of Division 3. On the flip side, most Division 3 schools within the Commonwealth would never consider playing up, as most D 3 coaches feel the level of competition is too great. Most teams, except Turners Falls that is.

The Indians, regarded by many as being the perfect blue print on how to run a successful softball program, have no issues when it comes to playing up. In fact, you could make a strong case that they are better than most Division 1 programs scattered across the state.

On a cool, damp Sunday evening, Wachusett, with an enrollment of over 2,000, and widely-considered the best program in Central Mass, locked horns with Turners Falls (enrollment of under 270).

A mismatch? Hardly.

The Indians are a well-oiled softball machine, having won eight state titles under legendary 38-year head coach Gary Mullins, the latest one coming last June. The eight crowns ties them with Bishop Fenwick for the most in state history.

This meeting between two of the state's most perennial powers was an opportune moment for each to prove itself against the other. To no one's surprise, this tight-fisted affair would come down to the final inning. With the game all even through the first six frames, the Mountaineers had a runner on with two out in the top of the seventh. Wachusett head coach called upon Brigid Griffin to come off the bench to pinch-hit. Waiting on a 1-0 curve ball from Turners Falls pitcher Peyton Emery, Griffin lofted a deep fly ball which cleared the 190-foot left field fence for a two-run home run and give Wachusett a hard-earned 3-1 victory.

"I took the first pitch she threw so I got a good look at it," said Griffin, a junior. "The second pitch she threw me was the exact same pitch. Since I had already saw it once, I knew where to swing. I know the fence here is shorter than the one at Wachusett so I felt it had a better chance of going out. Turners is a very good team so it means a lot to help our team win."

As expected, this tilt was dominated by pitching. Senior Liv Strasser was strong inside the circle for the Mountaineers, allowing four hits and fanning five. Likewise, Emery matched Strasser pitch-for-pitch with each passing inning. The junior gave up four hits and 2 Ks. She also set the Mountaineers down in order in five of the seven innings.

Scoreless through the first three innings, Wachusett (8-1) fired the first salvo in the fourth. With one out, Courtney Lampher lined a single to left. After Emery retired Strasser for the second out, Lizzie Miles roped a double to centerfield. The speedy Lampher never stopped running from second and scored easily for a 1-0 lead. Through the first four frames, Strasser held the Indians in check, allowing just one hit over that span. That hit belonging to Gabby Arzuaga, who led off the fourth by belting a deep shot to straightaway center which appeared to have the distance to clear the fence. However, Lampher was able to time her jump perfectly as the ball hit her glove and carried back onto the field thus robbing Arzuaga of a home run as she wound up with a double.

"That was really big," Wachusett head coach Joe Cataldo said. "I couldn't believe that the ball hit her glove. Courtney is such a great athlete and she gets a great jump on the ball when it is hit to her. She timed her jump at the fence perfectly because If she had timed it wrong then it's a home run."

Arzuaga never advanced beyond second base as Strasser set down the next three batters to come away unscathed. However, that would change in Turners Falls' half of the fifth. The Indians (5-1) bats finally began to stir with Abby Loynd starting things off by singling to right.

Two outs later, sophomore Cassidhe Wozniak, who played a stellar shortstop throughout this contest, grounded a single up the middle to put runners on first and second. Strasser, however, was unable to escape trouble this time around once Alyson Murphy delivered a single to center, plating Loynd with tying run. With two runners now in scoring position, Arzuaga returned to the batter's box. On the first pitch she saw, the senior smashed a sinking liner into the right-centerfield gap. But Mountaineers right fielder Jordin Laraia made a terrific diving catch to save two runs and keep the game deadlocked.

"I thought our kids really competed tonight against a very good team," said Mullins, who was recently named the recipient of the 2016-17 MIAA Softball Coach of the Year Award. "I'm very proud of the girls and how they played. There is nothing shameful about this loss. A good team beat us and it's that simple. Strasser, with the speed of her pitches, is something we don't see all that much, but I thought the girls had some nice swings against her. I also thought Peyton pitched very well. She uses her curve ball a lot to go with a fastball and change. Peyton is not going to over-power you but she does locate her pitches well and for the most part, she did that tonight."

 A quiet sixth inning was soon followed up by Griffin's well-timed late heroics in the seventh to pull this one out. It marks the second time in as many years that these two clubs have battled tooth and nail. Last year the Mountaineers came away with a narrow 1-0 win.

"Courtney hit a bomb and you take the and be happy about it," said Cataldo. "Hopefully the other girls can learn from this in regards that we do have enough talent on the bench in which we can go to whenever we need it. Brigid got it done for us tonight. This is a nice, competitive game for us because Coach Mullins always has great teams here. He's got eight state championships and he is certainly a great coach and they've got great talent. With a school their size, we probably have that many kids calling out absent every day than they have in their whole enrollment. That just tells you what a great coaching staff Turners Falls has and they always seem to get it done every year."

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