WORCESTER, Mass. – While the Hawks had not trailed at all in their playoff run and rarely trailed over the course of the season, Milford coach Steve DiVitto insisted after each game that his team knew how to bounce back and overcome a deficit to win.
Milford (25-1) waited until the final game of the season to prove him right.
Despite falling behind by three runs in the second inning of Saturday evening’s Div. 1 state championship game at Worcester State University’s Rockwood Field, the Hawks’ confidence never wavered. Senior pitcher Ali Atherton retired 16 of the final 19 batters she faced and the prolific Milford offense found its swing to pull out a 7-3 victory and earn the program’s first state title since winning the second of two straight titles 2013.
“They came out early and threw the first knockout blow,” said DiVitto, “and we responded and that’s what championship teams do. In big spots and big moments, you respond.”
He added, “You’ve got to be able to ride those peaks and valleys as this game goes on and they did just that and we’re back on top.”
Atherton said, “After the second inning, I said that I really didn’t want to lose my last game wearing a Milford uniform, so that’s what pushed me through the last innings. I didn’t want to lose my last game at Milford High.”
Milford had gone 15 innings without allowing a run (since the seventh inning of the South semifinal against Hopkinton) before the Mountaineers came to bat in the top of the second. The Central champions, making their first state title game appearance, seemed to figure out Atherton.
A single and an error put the first two hitters in scoring position and senior catcher Lizzie Miles drove a single to right that scored both runs. Kiana Lloyd followed with a hit to left, but Maggie Farrell fired to the plate and Emily Hartman just hung on to cut down Miles trying to score. Lloyd moved up to second on the throw and then to third on a wild pitch before scoring on a Paige Arvidson infield single.
Atherton explained, “In the second inning, they adjusted. They were crowding the plate and hitting my curve ball so hard. That hadn’t happened to me all season, but I realized I needed our catcher to set up more outside and my curveballs were more effective off the plate.”
Milford bounced right back in the bottom half of the inning. Hartman was hit by a pitch to lead-off and Kelley Reichert beat out an infield single. With one out, Shannon Cormier reached on an error to load the bases for Kate Irwin and the energetic centerfielder got the Milford bench going with an infield hit to score one. Hockomock League MVP Emily Piergustavo drove in a run with a sacrifice fly and the lead was down to one.
DiVitto said, “We told the girls, let’s not panic, let’s stay within ourselves and play our game. We know what we’re capable of doing, we’ve done it for 25 straight games, and they’re just a team that competes.”
Atherton allowed only two Wachusett hits over the final five innings, as she started to look more like the pitcher that had thrown back-to-back shutouts to reach the final.
When asked about Atherton’s performance in the final, DiVitto said, “Today? How about Ali for the last six games of the playoffs? She has been outstanding. She has been a rock.”
“Once probably the fourth inning came, I felt like I was in a groove but I had to stay up and stay focused,” Atherton explained. “I knew that the mentally strong pitcher was going to come out on top today, so I had to stay grounded.”
In the bottom of the fourth, Milford took the lead. Cormier worked a one-out walk and two batters later Piergustavo drove a ball that one-hopped the centerfield fence for a game-tying double. Farrell, another of the team’s three seniors, followed with a single that plated Piergustavo with what turned out to be the game-winning run.
“Our mentality was to bounce back,” said Piergustavo of the comeback. “If you get punched, then punch back harder. There’s no better feeling than the way we came back.”
Wachusett tried to put together a rally of its own in the sixth inning. Brigid Griffin singled to left just past the dive of Piergustavo, but was forced out at second on Courtney Lanpher’s grounder. Lanpher then went first-to-third on a grounder back to the pitcher to put the tying run only 60 feet away with two outs.
A fly ball to Cormier in right ended the threat and allowed Milford to breathe a sigh of relief. In the bottom half of the inning, the Hawks broke the game wide open and calmed nerves both on the field and in the bleachers.
Cormier, Irwin, and Piergustavo each singled to start the sixth and load the bases. Farrell drove in her second run with a sac fly to left and junior Jess Tomaso brought in another with a single to right. Senior Kaitlyn DeCapua made it 7-3 with another sac fly and the trophy felt like it was in Milford’s grasp.
A comebacker to Atherton and a leaping grab on a line drive by Cormier put the Hawks on the brink and fittingly it was DeCapua who would record the final out, pulling in a foul pop fly to seal the championship that she and the other seniors had been dreaming about for four years.
“I knew one day we’d make it here,” DeCapua said. “I remember being a seventh and eighth grader watching the state championship and I just knew one day I’d be here. It’s amazing; words can’t describe it.”
Piergustavo, whose sister Allie was a starter on the 2013 championship team, added, “It’s amazing. We had wristbands that said ‘Rise Together’ and we rose together to win this championship. There’s no better feeling right now. Words can’t describe how proud I am of this team.”
The seniors were not the only newcomers to the team four years ago. DiVitto also took over as the new head coach that spring and immediately had to answer questions about how to replace a class that won three state titles. He had his answer on Saturday.
“Four years ago, this journey started with these four seniors,” DiVitto remarked, “and four years ago it was the question of where is this program going to go because of the great graduating class in 2013 and how are you going to replace all of them?
“Take a look at the scoreboard and that’s how you replace them; by a team that sticks together, by a team that believes in each other and that’s what it’s all about.”
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