OId Town ace fires masterful 19 K effort, blanking Raiders 2-0 in state softball final
By Wayne E. Rivet
STANDISH — As player after player chased rising fastballs and returned to the Raider bench with a bewildered look on their faces, Coach Fred Apt had seen this story line before.
Flash back to 2012 — Fryeburg Academy’s last appearance in the Class B state softball championship game.
A junior pitcher froze a hard-hitting Raider line-up (.360 average as a squad) to the tune of 15 strikeouts — 11 swinging.
A well struck ball sailed over the FA leftfielder’s head for a two-run double, erasing a Raider lead and giving the Eastern champ all the momentum they would need to claim its first state title.
Jump ahead to 2017. Fryeburg made a startling return to the state finals with a thrilling come-from-behind victory over top-ranked Wells. Richard W. Bailey Field on the campus of St. Joseph’s College has been the Raiders’ private playground. FA entered Saturday’s championship game with a 2-0 state final record in Standish.
But, history repeated itself, somewhat.
Old Town, the reigning champ, stood in the path of Fryeburg claiming its fourth golden glove.
It was déjà vu.
Junior pitcher Mckenna Smith overpowered the FA hitters with a blistering riser and a biting curveball, striking out 19 (15 swinging) while surrendering just three hits as Old Town (18-2) blanked the Raiders 2-0.
While the Coyotes stranded 10 base runners as Raider hurler Nicole Bennett masterly used a change-up to strike out nine and induce inning-ending plays, Old Town capitalized on a long fly ball that just cleared outfielder Chloe Coen’s head and a controversial steal of home plate following a dropped third strike.
“Her rise ball and curve were breaking pretty good. We looked at too many good pitches,” FA Head Coach Fred Apt said. “The only adjustment we tried to make was that if you see a good pitch, you need to tee off. You can’t wait because the next pitch is going to be that curve or rise ball. We needed to be more aggressive early in the count. There were a couple of times when it was 3-1, that was the time when we were going to hit it, but we took the pitch and were in a bad spot.”
The Coyotes entered the big game on a major roll with Smith leading the charge. Old Town — the second seed in the East — shut out all three playoff opponents — Winslow 2-0, Hermon 7-0 and Oceanside 1-0.
Old Town lost twice early in the regular season, but then pieced together a 16-game win streak.
Smith, who was an outfielder a year ago, set the tone early when the Raiders left their lone runner — Mackenzie Buzzell, who reached on an error off a bunt try — of the day in scoring position, striking out FA’s three big bats.
“She’s a helluva pitcher. She keeps you off balance,” Coach Apt said. “We haven’t seen someone like her all year.”
Old Town threatened in the first inning with two out. Bennett had caught the first two Coyote hitters looking on nicely tossed changeup pitches.
But, Old Town got back-to-back singles from Smith, whose roller was just beyond the diving reach of shortstop Tina LeBlanc (who had a thin layer of mud on her jersey for her effort) and Olivia Albert. Bennett escaped trouble when right fielder Chloe Coen caught a fly ball.
With Smith striking out six of the first seven Raiders she faced, the Coyotes got on the scoreboard first in the third inning.
Natalie St. Louis blooped a hit into rightfield. Morgan Love then belted a drive to deep right. Coen appeared to have a beat on the hit, but initially turned to her right, then back pedaled and came back left. The ball sailed over her head, allowing St. Louis to score. Coen recovered to make a nifty catch of a fly ball in foul grounds, but Love moved up to third. Bennett struck out Albert, but FA catcher Makayla Cooper was unable to hold on to the ball, forcing her to make a throw to first base.
FA’s Kaylee Emery recorded the out, but the first baseman had trouble getting a throw off to home plate because of Albert running toward the first base bag.
The throw was late. Love scored. And, Coach Apt appealed, feeling Albert had interfered with the play.
“She had her arms up as she ran to first base. So, Haylee couldn’t see Coop. She was also out of her running lane, so I argued that if you don’t give me one, you need to give me the other one,” Coach Apt explained. “They were both wrong. I told the home plate umpire that he had to have seen the runner was outside of the box. But, we didn’t get the call, and it was a big play.”
With two out, Lauren Gasaway singled, but Bennett ended the inning with a fly ball out to leftfield.
All season, Mackenzie Buzzell has been the spark that has ignited the Raider offense. With one out and speedy Grace Condon on (she fouled off several pitches and earned a walk), Buzzell crushed a shot to deep left. Coyote freshman Jannessa Brown drifted back, back and at the last second reached up to glove the fly ball.
“That catch was a big one. If it gets over her head, who knows if it is the hit that sparks a big inning for us,” Coach Apt said.
Instead, Smith recorded her eighth K, needing just three pitches to sit the Raiders down.
Smith struck out the next six Raiders before Coen ripped a fastball up the middle for a single with two out in the fifth inning. Smith added another ‘K’ to end the frame.
Bennett showed incredible poise following Old Town’s surge in the third inning, fanning six including a 1-2-3 in the sixth, all on changeups, and giving up just three hits.
“Nicole kept us in the game. They had some base runners, but she came up with some big pitches. She had a great game,” Coach Apt said. “The change-up was a big pitch for her. She started right out using it effectively. She even used it two or three in a row. Now, they didn’t know what was coming. I can’t say enough about Nicole. She did a great job.”
FA appeared to turn a double play in the fourth when freshman third baseman Paige O’Connell snagged a line drive off the bat of Hannah Sibley, and alertly fired a bullet to first baseman Kaylee Emery. Emery appeared to catch the ball, stretching toward the home base side, yet maintaining contact with the bag. She would then come off the bag, and the runner was ruled safe. No problem, Bennett left the runner at second by recording a strikeout and a ground ball out, short to first.
Buzzell reached in the sixth on a flare that dropped toward second base. Smith rose to the challenge, striking out two to end the threat.
In the seventh, Emery lead off with a single to left, fighting off a 1-2 pitch. Smith closed out the title with a strikeout, infield fly and another strikeout as the Coyotes won their third state crown.
Although the loss stung, Coach Apt was very proud of his team’s growth this season and how they battled to the end.
“I never thought that we would be here. It says a lot about our seniors (Ali Fraize, Buzzell, Bennett and Cooper), who were real leaders. And, it says a lot about our younger players who bought into it and did a great job,” he said.
Fryeburg Academy finished 16-4.
Side notes: The Coyotes are built for a possible three-peat, losing just two starters — third baseman Lauren Gasaway and catcher Natalie St. Louis. Old Town’s starting roster included two freshmen, one sophomore and four juniors.
Sophomore outfielder Olivia Albert was Old Town’s starting pitcher in last year’s state title game.