TAUNTON, Mass. – On Saturday afternoon, Milford played a near perfect game to hand Silver Lake its first loss of the season and win the Div. 1 South title. On Tuesday night in the state semifinal, back at Taunton High’s Jack Tripp Field, the Hawks showed that even when not at their best, they have enough grit to come out on top.
Despite Newton North putting runners in scoring position in five of the seven innings, Milford escaped unscathed each time and scored a pair of unearned runs to grind out a 3-0 victory and advance to the state championship game for the first time since winning the Div. 1 title four years ago.
“It’s great to know that maybe the bats aren’t at their best and our defense at times wasn’t at its best and Ali [Atherton] in a couple of innings maybe wasn’t at her best, but when push came to shove, man did they step up,” said Milford coach Steve DiVitto, who joined the program along with this senior class and will be making his first state final appearance this weekend.
Atherton, the senior pitcher, tossed a one-hitter in the South final against the Lakers, but the Tigers beat that total in the top of the first. With runners at second and third and two outs, Atherton struck out her opposite number Madison Schaefer to get out of the jam.
The Hawks took the lead in their first at-bats. Emily Piergustavo drew a one-out walk, followed by a Maggie Farrell single to right. Jess Tomaso lined a single to right that brought in the opening run and moved Farrell to third. Schaefer avoided a big inning by getting a bouncing ball right back to her and a strikeout to end the threat.
The Tigers put the lead-off runner on in the second on a rare Milford error. After a strikeout and a sliding catch by centerfielder Kate Irwin on a sinking line drive, the Tigers loaded the bases with back-to-back singles. Again, Atherton was able to bear down and get a fly ball to end the inning.
Milford doubled its lead in the bottom of the second. Maddy Bonvino drew a one-out walk and, after a fly ball out, stole second to get into scoring position for Irwin. The junior lead-off hitter singled to center and the ball bounced by the fielder to allow Bonvino to score easily.
“It’s nice to be in the lead,” DiVitto said. “It’s better than the other way around because the nerves settled in a little bit and it was big for our girls to get those runs early. But, we’ve been behind a couple times this year and been able to battle back, so ahead, behind, they just have a great mindset.”
Atherton settled down with the lead and allowed only one hit over the next three innings. The Hawks added a crucial insurance run in the fifth. Irwin reached on an error and stole second. Piergustavo popped it up in foul territory near the Tigers bench and, after making the grab, the first baseman attempted to pick off Irwin at second, but the throw got away.
Irwin flew home with the third run and her energy fired up both her teammates and the traveling Milford support in the bleachers.
“She was huge for us tonight,” said DiVitto of Irwin. “That play at second base, we work on that all year. Take a couple jab steps and force a throw and she forced a throw and that’s a huge insurance run going into the seventh inning; 3-0 is a big change from two.”
Holding a three-run lead in the seventh, Milford had one foot in the state final, but the Tigers would not go quietly.
With one out, Holly Chin singled and an error brought the tying run to the plate. Atherton reached back for a little extra to get a strikeout, but then walked the next hitter to load the bases and bring a potential go-ahead run up to bat. With the Tigers faithful as loud as they had been all night, Atherton induced a comebacker to put an end to the rally.
When asked what he was thinking as the Tigers loaded the bases, DiVitto responded, “Ali was going to find a way to get three outs. I have a lot of confidence in her. Four years of her in the circle, she is a warrior and she has been for four years.”
He added, “That’s what a winner does. That’s what a girl who’s got guts does. [Ali] was great on Saturday, no girls on base, she was cruising. Tonight she ran into a little trouble but the same demeanor on the mound. She was locked in.”
The Hawks have had a target on their backs since the beginning of the season, as they entered as heavy favorites in the Davenport division and as one of the favorites in Div. 1 South. DiVitto tried to explain what carried the Hawks to this point.
He said, “These girls play for each other and they’re excited for each other. Whenever anything happens with their teammates, they’re excited for them. A girl could go 0-for-4 but still be excited we won and that’s big.”
Milford (24-1), riding a 24-game win streak, will face Central champion Wachusett on Saturday at Worcester State University (time to be determined).
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