Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Wachusett and Turners Falls Softball Earn State Final Berths

By John McGuirk (@patsfan1313)

AMHERST - This was typical fashion for Wachusett Regional.

A solid pitching performance parlayed with timely hitting allowed the Mountaineers to punch their ticket into the Division 1 softball finals for the first time in school history.

In a game where nothing would be settled through seven innings, Wachusett went the extra mile by plating a pair of runs in its half of the eighth to down Minnechaug 2-0 in the state semifinal played Tuesday at UMass' Sortino Field.

Wachusett (21-3) will square off versus Milford (24-1) in the title game on Saturday at Worcester's Rockwood Field at a time to be determined. The Scarlet Hawks defeated Newton North 3-0 in their state semifinal on Tuesday evening.

As expected, this tilt instantly transformed into a solid pitching affair. Wachusett ace Liv Strasser and Falcons sophomore Katelyn Thompson put forth a major duel inside the circle all throughout. Neither willing to show her hand to the other.

After seven frames of scoreless ball, the Mountaineers finally got something started in the eight that would pay huge dividends. Abbey Simes opened the inning by reaching on an infield single.  After advancing to second on a SAC bunt, junior Jordin Laraia proceeded to rip Thompson's first offering to centerfield fence for an RBI triple. Moments later, Camme Sperling floated a single into right to push Wachusett on top by a pair.

"We were able to get our lead off hitter on and move her to second base," said Mountaineers coach Joe Cataldo. "Then bang, Jordin gets up and pounds the ball into deep center. The last couple of games Jordin was down so she was due. Give our girls credit because they played tough. They weren't going home without this win."

Up until the eighth, Thompson, a crafty right-hander, had held the powerful Mountaineer batting order in check, having allowed just three hits. But everything came apart on her in the deciding eighth where she would allow three hits. For the game, Thompson surrendered six hits and struck out five.

"I saw the first pitching coming right down the middle and I wanted it," Laraia said. "It's feels good. Up until the last inning this game was a battle of pitchers. Each pitched great so to get this win is great."

Equally as impressive was Strasser. The hard-throwing senior curtailed Minnechaug (23-1) throughout her duration. The righty served up just four hits and fanned eight.

"We were not use to going 0-0 going into the eighth inning this season," said Strasser. "I just knew our team would get it done somehow. I knew someone would come up with a clutch hit and today Jordin did. Pitching-wise, I just listened to my coaches and continued to hit my spots."

Only twice did the Falcons place a runner in scoring position but to no avail. The same could be said for the Mountaineers. They threatened in the fourth, putting the first two runners on before Thompson set down the next three batters untouched. Before and after that, Wachusett remained silent before its uprising in the eighth that spelled the difference.

"We took them to eight innings and we were right there with them," said Falcons coach Rob Baroni. "Their pitcher showed good velocity and was able to locate the ball. She had no walks today. She tried to make us chase pitches out of the zone. At times we hit the ball hard against her but their defense made plays. When we did get hits we weren't able to move runners around the way we would like to. Katelyn gave us a chance today. She works very hard out there. Our kids played great defense behind her. Give (Laraia) credit. She squared one up and hit the ball hard."

Turners Falls rallies late

Over the first five innings, Turners Falls saw itself in an unfamiliar position, trailing by a run and with its offense stuck in neutral. The defending back-to-back state champions could not come up with an answer for Hopedale pitcher Julia Alberto.

The senior continued to baffle Turners Falls' lineup by mixing a hard fastball on the inner-half before unleashing a sharp breaking ball. Time after time, Turners Falls walked back into its dugout bewildered and flustered.

All of that changed in the bottom of the sixth after Turners Falls converted a pair of Hopedale fielding errors into runs, allowing them to come away with a 2-1 victory. Turners Falls (22-2) will meet Austin Prep (22-2) in Saturday's final at Rockwood Field at a time to be determined. Turners Falls and Austin Prep met in last year's final won by Turners Falls 2-0. Turners Falls is now one shy of breaking the state record. Currently they are tied with Bishop Fenwick with eight wins apiece. 

"I'm really proud in how we played today," said Blue Raiders head coach Shanna Lathrop, her team finishing the campaign 14-9. "Our goal has always been to get runners on base but today we weren't able to capitalize except early on. Obviously it was a tough way to lose but the girls need to keep their heads up for making it here and winning a district title."

The Blue Raiders, a sixth seed in the recent Central Mass. Division 3 tournament, got hot at the right time by capturing the district championship last Saturday. Now it was time to show their mettle against perhaps the best high school program in the state over the last two decades.

Jordan Wilson's SAC fly in the opening frame gave Hopedale a 1-0 advantage after Rachel Swanson and Katelyn Koller led off the inning with back to back singles. However, Turners Falls junior pitcher Peyton Emery kept the damage to a minimum by allowing just the lone run. That would prove to be important as this tilt progressed.

On the other side, Alberto, a right-hander, continued to make Turners Falls look off-balance inside the batters box, holding them without a hit over the first three frames. In the Hopedale fourth, it had a chance to extend its lead when it placed two runners on with one out. But Emery managed to dodge trouble by retiring the next two Blue Raiders batters with relative ease and keep it a one run deficit.

As this game progressed, it appeared as though the 1-0 lead would stand. Obviously,Turners Falls was doing nothing to help its cause.

But when it comes to this highly-touted program, no deficit, no matter the margin, is ever deemed safe. With two out, Turners Falls pinch-runner Kate Garcia represented the tying run at third following Aly Murphy's fielder's choice. Taylor Murphy next hit a ground ball to second baseman Lucia Rolo for what should have been the last out. But the sophomore was unable to corral it allowing Garcia to race home to square things at 1-1.

After Murphy stole second and moved to third on a wild pitch, Maddy Johnson bounced a ball to Rolo. Staying down on it all the way, at the last instant, the ball came up, hitting Rolo in the chest and bouncing away. It was deja vu as Murphy crossed the plate giving Turners Falls its first lead of the contest.

"No question that team deserved a better fate," Turners Falls 38-year coach Gary Mullins said. "We had very little offense today and won this because of a couple of defensive mistakes. I honestly don't feel we deserved to win this but we got lucky. Kudos to their pitcher because she pitched very well. But I was disappointed with our approach at the plate. We were trying to yank everything down the third base line. That's not the kind of hitters we are."

Emery (5 hits, 7 Ks) set Hopedale down in order in the top of the seventh to secure the improbable victory.

"Our energy was really down today," Emery said. "We played flat but all throughout I thought we could come back and win it. I don't know if it was the heat or what, but we didn't play well early on."

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