LOWELL, Mass. – It is a long trip from Taunton up to Martin Field in Lowell through late afternoon traffic, but the Tigers apparently arrived on their coach bus ready to go for Tuesday night’s state semifinal.
Taunton scored six runs in the opening two innings, Kelsey White had a perfect game into the fifth and allowed only five hits, and the Tigers ended an 11-year wait to get back to the state championship game with a 6-1 win over North champion Newton North.
“It doesn’t even feel real,” said junior Jaime Brown, a four-year starter for the Tigers, about having the chance to play for a state championship. “We’ve worked so hard and it’s just falling at our feet. It’s crazy, but it just feels so good.”
White was masterful in the circle again for Taunton. Just a freshman, experiencing the postseason stage for the first time, White has not been awed by the moment and she retired the first 12 batters that she faced on Tuesday before Mia Bueno singled to lead-off the fifth.
“She pitches real tough,” Taunton coach Dave Lewry said of White. “She had everything going today, all her pitches, she was hitting her spots. I know they can hit, I know they can put the ball in play, but I’ve got to give all the credit to Kelsey. She just did a fabulous job for us.”
White admitted, “I was very nervous at first but going out there and knowing that I have the best defense behind me makes me more comfortable.” She also got help from Brown and the other upperclassmen. She said, “They pick me up every time I get down and make sure I go and get the next batter.”
Taunton helped out its freshman pitcher with some early runs. The Tigers have been strong with two outs in the postseason and they managed to rally again in the first. Kya Enos lined a single through the hole on the left side for a two-out baserunner. The senior catcher stole second and then came around to score the opening run on a base hit by classmate Mackenzie Handrahan.
The Tigers broke the game wide open in the second. This time they did not wait until there were two outs to get started, instead scoring six times before committing one.
Kelsey White was hit by a pitch to lead off and her older sister Alexa White followed by drawing a nine-pitch walk. Paige Silvia dropped down a bunt and White hustled into third to beat the throw and load the bases. The hero from the South final, sophomore Rylie Murphy, brought in the first run with a grounder to the left side, reaching on a fielder’s choice to keep the bases full.
Brown, Taunton’s lead-off hitter, emptied the bases, drilling a pitch into the gap in left-center for a triple that scored three. The throw to third bounced off Brown and to the fence in front of the Tigers’ dugout, allowing her to come home too.
“That’s always across you mind, you want the big hit, but honestly I was just looking for a single to bring a run in and chip away and getting them all in was just a bonus,” said Brown.
Lewry added, “That puts a lot of pressure on the other team. They can’t play for one run, they’ve got to be swinging the bats and I don’t think that’s their game. They like to bunt and run and get runs here or there. That was a key for us.”
The Tigers also threatened in the third and seemed to have Newton North on the ropes. Alexa White singled to start the inning and moved into scoring position on a Silvia sac bunt. Murphy singled to left to put two on and was pinch-run for by Abbie McDonough, who promptly stole second.
Newton North pitcher Mia Patriacca got Brown and Liana Duarte looking to escape the jam. Taunton did not put another batter on base, as Patriacca retired the final 11 hitters she faced.
“We kind of deflated after that and never got back to hitting the ball,” Lewry explained. “I think that kind of took our momentum away from us. They let up a little with a six-run lead, but we did what we had to do.”
Newton North finally got something going in the fifth. Bueno singled to left to start the inning, the first baserunner of the night for the North champs. Kira Flegenheimer followed with a single but was forced at second on a grounder to Hanna Aldrich. With runners at the corners, Ciara Gillen hit a weak fly ball into shallow right field that dropped just in front of McDonough and allowed the run to score.
White needed to bear down, as momentum seemed to be shifting to the suddenly loud visiting side. She got a grounder to second and then a strikeout to end the inning and preserve a five-run lead.
“They got runners on base,” White said, “but I knew we just had to get the outs and not worry about them. We just needed to get all the outs that we could.”
“Is she only a freshman?” Lewry joked. “She doesn’t act like it, I’ll tell you that. She is the calmest, coolest, most collected person on the mound that we’ve had in a long, long time. She didn’t fall apart at all, she stuck with it, threw her pitches and got us out of it.”
The visitors got a one-out hit in the sixth, but Brown made a nice play on the run to field a short grounder down the third base line and White showed her ability to field her position as she managed to move to her left to snag a tricky grounder.
In the seventh, Newton North again got a one-out hit to put the pressure on Taunton, but White induced a grounder to her sister at second to force the lead runner and then struck out the final batter looking to set off another raucous celebration.
“It’s the best experience,” said White. “It’s very nerve-wracking, but it’s the best experience. I’m very happy for [the seniors] and all I want it for is them and the team.”
Lewry was asked if he was surprised at all to see the Tigers in this position of playing for a state championship. He replied, “I envisioned this team being capable of being in this position, so I’m not surprised by it. It’s not an easy road, of course, but there’s a lot of talent here and I think the heart has shown through. Especially in the tournament, they’re in it for each other and that really makes a huge difference.”
Taunton (25-2) will face the Central champ Wachusett in the state title game at Worcester State on Saturday at 6:00. Wachusett (much like Newton North in the semifinal) was also at this stage last year and lost to Milford in the championship game.
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