O’Connell Beats Buzzer and Lifts Franklin to First Title

Franklin girls basketball
Franklin girls basketball celebrates on the court after beating Wachusett at Worcester State to earn the program’s first-ever sectional title. (Josh Perry/HockomockSports.com)

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WORCESTER, Mass. – Franklin got the look it wanted to try and win the game.

Down by one with less than 10 seconds remaining, Erin Quaile swung the ball around the perimeter to her backcourt partner Shannon Gray, who looped the ball into Ali Brigham on the left block. The 6-foot-3 junior center, who had 28 points to that point, turned into her smaller defender, took a dribble, and got a look at the rim.

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Unlike so many other chances that Brigham converted in Friday night’s Div. 1 Central final at Worcester State University, this one didn’t find the bottom of the net. Instead, it kicked off to the far side, but her classmate Megan O’Connell was there and pulled down the offensive rebound between three Wachusett defenders.

O’Connell instantly went back up with an off-balance shot. It bounced on the right side of the rim, took a touch on the backboard, and dropped through to put Franklin ahead 61-60 just as the final horn sounded on the program’s first-ever sectional title.

“I was thinking, ‘oh my god, it’s not going to go in,’ and then it somehow did,” said O’Connell after the game. “I was thrilled, this is all we’ve been working for. I’m just happy it all worked out.”

Gray added, “It’s amazing. I can’t believe that we’re the first team in Franklin girls basketball history to ever get a sectional and that’s just so amazing…I can’t believe it’s real.”

When the ball dropped through the basket, O’Connell seemed to hesitate for a second before the celebrations kicked in, as though she wasn’t sure if she had really just done that. That she had just won the game. “I was in shock. I didn’t really process that it went in,” she explained.

“It was like every bad Disney movie at the end where you’re just waiting and waiting,” Franklin coach John Leighton joked. “We drew up a play to get Ali the ball but we talked about at the end of the game, whoever has the ball just shoot it, not to make the extra pass. [Megan] got it, she didn’t blink, she didn’t think twice, and she shot it right away.”

There were points in the second half when it looked like Franklin may run away from the Mountaineers and cruise to the title. But, Wachusett came in undefeated for a reason and stormed back in the fourth. A 4-0 run to close the third was followed by four more to start the final quarter with junior Belle Lanpher (21 points) getting a steal and then a transition basket to cut the lead to 47-45.

Brigham answered back with a basket plus the foul and senior Bea Bondhus (10 points) knocked down a pull-up jumper from the right to push the lead back to seven. A jumper by Rachel Vinton (14 points) was matched by a Brigham layup, off a feed from O’Connell, to keep the Panthers up 54-47.

That was when things started to get very interesting.

Lanpher drilled a straightaway three to cut the lead to four points and Vinton halved that with a pair at the line. Again, Franklin turned to Brigham, who added 14 rebounds and seven blocks to her game-high point total, and she responded with a basket from a Gray assist. A layup for Jill Post made it a two-point game and then Courtney Lanpher (14 points) buried a three to put the Mountaineers up 57-56. It was their first lead of the second half.

Bondhus got fouled in the backcourt and, despite the cacophony of noise from the Wachusett student section, buried two clutch free throws with 1:19 left to give the Panthers back the lead. Courtney Lanpher was fouled and knocked down a pair at the line to make it 59-58 with 1:06 left. After another foul, Gray (seven points) hit 1-of-2 to tie it with 1:01 remaining.

“The whole time we were just like let’s do it,” said Gray. “We’ve got it and let’s just finish.”

The score stayed the same until Lanpher was fouled going to the basket with 15.1 on the clock. She missed the first and Leighton took a timeout. The senior guard made the second and instantly Wachusett went into its press. Quaile got free to get the inbound and pushed the ball up court, where the Panthers got the ball into Brigham’s hands and then O’Connell provided the heroics.

“A quarter-inch difference and Wachusett wins the game and we’re going home,” said Leighton, adding, “If that bounced the other way, I’d be just as proud of the kids because what they did tonight was give everything they had against a great team. This was as complete a game as they could play and if that ball bounced out I don’t think I would feel differently.”

O’Connell said, “We worked so hard and we had a good run in the first half and we thought we were going to win and it turned around and we had to stay put and keep playing defense and we pulled it out.”

Wachusett came out firing and took an early 10-4 lead in the first. The Mountaineers scored 19 points in the opening quarter, mostly using a high pick-and-roll in the center of the court. Franklin was aggressively jumping out to the shooters and the Mountaineers were able to turn the corner time and again and get to the rim, where Brigham was nowhere to be found because she was forced to extend out.

The Panthers changed things up defensively in the second and held Wachusett to just 10 points in the quarter.

“They shoot the lights out…so we came out trying to limit their three-point shots,” said Leighton. “We adjusted and we tried to switch a lot more and put a person in that gap so it wasn’t a straight shot to the rim. That got Ali a lot of those blocks because she had time to get back.”

Brigham was on fire early in the game, as the Panthers got the ball inside early and often. O’Connell (10 points and nine rebounds), fresh off a 19-point game in the semifinal, was also getting free and taking the ball to the rim. Gray nailed a three in the final seconds to tie the game at 19-19 after one.

In the second, Franklin’s outside shooting started to find the range. Bondhus and Quaile each hit threes and Brigham added another six points as Franklin pushed the lead to as many as 10, 35-25. A quick 4-0 run at the end of the half got the top seed back within single digits at the break.

A Belle Lanpher three cut the Panthers advantage to 40-37 in the third, but then Franklin went on a 7-0 run to again push the lead to 10. Brigham got an offensive board and put-back and Bondhus drilled a three in the run. But again, Wachusett was able to score four straight to get back within six at 47-41 and set up an exciting finish to this rematch of the 2015 Central final.

Franklin (20-4) now advances to the state semifinal for the first time and will face West champion Springfield Central.

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Tigers End Long Wait, Bring Home State Championship

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Taunton junior Alexa White (right) is greeted at home by teammates after hitting a grand slam. (Ryan Lanigan/HockomockSports.com)
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WORCESTER, Mass. – In the bottom of the fourth inning, Wachusett started to hit the ball hard, scoring a run on back-to-back doubles and cutting into the Taunton lead. Although the Tigers still led by three runs, momentum appeared to be shifting to the Central champs and Taunton went to the plate looking for an instant response to take back control.

With one run home, the Tigers had the bases loaded with two outs and up stepped junior Alexa White. Wachusett starter Courtney Lanpher got two strikes on Taunton’s second baseman, but then White turned on a pitch, lifting it to deep left. The Taunton bench was almost holding its breath watching the ball sail towards the fence and almost exploded when the ball cleared it.

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White’s grand slam broke Saturday night’s Div. 1 state championship game wide open, lifting Taunton (26-2) to a convincing 13-2 win over the Mountaineers and ending an 11-year wait for the program’s fifth state title.

“It’s almost surreal,” said Taunton coach Dave Lewry, who earned his fourth title as coach of the Tigers. “I began to question whether I was ever going to get another one, you know? It just hasn’t sunk in yet, but these kids deserve it. The whole team just worked so hard for it.

“I’m just so proud of them all. They’ve had a great, great season.”

Throughout the playoffs, as a team, the Tigers have talked about trying to win this title for the senior class, which before this year had gotten as far as the South sectional final four years ago. On Saturday, they fulfilled that mission.

“They worked so hard all these years and for us to finally have a chance for it, we really wanted them to have it,” said freshman Hanna Aldrich.

The Tigers jumped in front in the first. Junior Jaime Brown (2-for-3) lined a single to center, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt from Liana Duarte (3-for-4), and then scored on a single by Kya Enos (2-for-4). All three played on the Taunton team that reached the South final in 2015.

In the third, Taunton got some breathing room. Brown drew a one-out walk and stole second. With two outs, Enos drew a walk and Mackenzie Handrahan knocked a single through the left side of the infield. Brown was able to slide in ahead of the tag. Aldrich (2-for-4) followed with a single of her own, which scored Enos and Handrahan for a 4-0 lead.

Wachusett got its first base runner off Kelsey White with two outs in the fourth. Ellie Moore doubled to left center and then Reagan Lowe bounced one off the fence in center to drive her in. Paige Arvidson smashed a line drive right back at White, who snared it to end the inning.

The energy was suddenly much higher from the Wachusett fans and the Mountaineers looked rejuvenated. That lasted only a few hitters.

Duarte started the rally with a one-out single. Enos reached on an error and Handrahan on a fielder’s choice after another error trying to get the lead runner. Aldrich drove in her third run of the game with a bouncer over the pitcher that left the shortstop in no man’s land.

“We kept talking about that,” said Lewry about Taunton trying to stem any momentum from Wachusett. “They made it 4-1 and I said let’s get that four-run lead back and they came right back and got it for me. You just like to keep putting the pressure on.”

After Lanpher got Kelsey White to pop up to the catcher for the second out, the Mountaineers looked like they may just escape the inning having only allowed a single run, but Alexa White stepped in to give her sister, and the team, a lift. The grand slam made it 9-1 and had the Tigers cruising.

“I already had two strikes on me,” Alexa White said, “and I was just expecting the middle pitch and I took it and it was the best feeling I’ve ever experienced. It’s something I’ll never forget. I’m so happy I could rally the team up one last time.”

Emily Todorov started the bottom half of the inning with a solo shot to left, but then Alexa White flashed the leather at second to record the next three outs. Twice she made plays to her left, cutting down grounders in the hole between first and second and then, after a Wachusett single, she tracked one down up the middle and had the presence of mind to tag the base for the force.

“My adrenaline was up and I was like, ‘I’ve got to go every which way to get this ball,’ said White about her play in the field. She moved from the outfield to second base after an injury to starter McKenzie McAloon right before the tournament and it was an adjustment at first. She explained, “Obviously, it was a big surprise to put me there because of an unfortunate injury but I knew I had to step up there and help out the infield.”

Any hope that Wachusett had of a comeback was dashed in the sixth. Taunton continued to stretch the lead and the top of the order continued to come through with big hits. Brown started it with a double to center and Duarte followed by lining a double over the left fielder’s head. She would come around to score again on an Enos single to left and it was 11-2.

In the seventh, Taunton brought players off the bench to give them a taste of the final and extended the lead further.

Freshman Tayah DaCosta, who was pulled up from JV for the postseason, lined a single in her first at-bat of the playoffs. Abbie McDonough, who played right field, followed with a double to put two in scoring position. Hailee Hartung drove in one with a groundout to second and Duarte beat out an infield single to drive in another.

With a strong defense behind her, Kelsey White closed out the game with a clean seventh inning. The freshman allowed only five hits from the Mountaineers and continued a strong tournament run that saw her allow no more than two runs in any of Taunton’s six playoff games.

“She’s really composed,” said Enos about White. “You’ll never see her upset, she’s always within herself. I’m so proud of her. She’s pitched every game of the tournament by herself. It’s emotionally, physically, and mentally tiring and she did it.”

Lewry added, “She’s been amazing all year. She’s a freshman but she pitches like a senior. What a career she’s got in front of her still and she’s already got a state championship.”

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With two outs, the ball was hit on the ground to Brown at third and she, as she has done countless times before, fired a strike to first base. Unlike all those other times, this one was for a state championship and to complete a mission that the Tigers had set out on at the start of the season.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” Aldrich gushed. “Nothing has ever felt like this before.”

“I’m surprised I’m not crying because I’m so happy,” Alexa White said. “I’m just in shock because this is so incredible and I’m so happy for the seniors and…there are no words, literally no words.

Milford Rallies in Final and Returns to Softball Summit

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Milford softball players get set to celebrate with the Div. 1 state championship trophy after beating Wachusett at Worcester State. (Josh Perry/HockomockSports.com)

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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.

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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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