PLAINVILLE — Before each of her at-bats, Taylor LeBrun goes back in time. She returns to the moment that changed everything for the softball program at Milford High, a moment that still hasn’t sunk in for the promising catcher and a collection of her teammates.
Just over a month ago, in the Division 1 state championship game against Malden, LeBrun hit the game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth inning, delivering the school its first state title in softball. She replays that at-bat in her mind each time that she steps to the plate for the Central Mass. Thunder.
“I try to think of that as a confidence booster,” she said. “I got that hit, so I can do it now.”
LeBrun and three of her Milford teammates — Caroline Fairbanks , Rachel Levine, and Lindsey Read — are all trying to capitalize on the success they had during the spring as they compete for the Thunder this summer. On the Plainville Athletic League fields the team calls home, they refine their skills with the hopes of being even better next spring.
“At first, I thought, all right maybe I’ll have my one, and when we win, I’ll feel like it’s accomplished,” Fairbanks said of the team’s state crown. “But I want another one.”
To get there, the Scarlet Hawks teammates know there’s work to be done. While Read is headed to Endicott College in the fall after serving as a senior captain this spring, Fairbanks and Levine (rising seniors) and rising sophomore LeBrun all have improvements that they want to make before trying to repeat as state champs.
LeBrun is hoping to take her game to another level even after the leap she made last season, when she went from catching eighth-graders to catching the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year, Shannon Smith.
Last winter, LeBrun says, she couldn’t see the first pitch Smith threw to her because she wasn’t used to the speed. But when she was thrust into the starting role for the majority of the spring because of an injury to senior Taylor Archer , she thrived.
Now she’s working on her footwork behind the plate, hoping to seize the starting position in the spring. If this summer is any indication, LeBrun will be one of the team’s most important cogs: She is hitting third for the Thunder and has four home runs.
Fairbanks, who scored the championship-winning run from second on LeBrun’s hit, is a consistent home run threat herself. But the power-hitting corner infielder is focused now on leveling out her swing to produce more line drives.
Levine, an outfielder who has verbally committed to Boston University, is working on the mental aspect of her game.
“I’m trying to take things a lot easier now,” Levine said. “I want to be a little more laid back, but still passionate about the game.”
That’s an opportunity Milford players are afforded during the summer that they may not have in the spring, according to Thunder coach Mark Hernandez . It’s easier to have a relaxed approach while playing for the Thunder (31-15-3) because the team’s season doesn’t hinge on having a perfect record.
“It’s a different setting, and I think they look at this as a little bit refreshing,” Hernandez said of the Milford foursome.
“Not to say we don’t want to win here. We do. But I think there’s a little less pressure to win because [in the spring] ‘We have Shannon. We have all these great players. We’re supposed to win.’ Here, we’re playing a lot of teams that are just as good if not better than we are. It takes a little bit of pressure off because there’s no expectation. The only expectation is that they’re great teammates and they play hard.”
The players from Milford know that. It’s part of the reason they dedicate their summers to softball; they try to attract the attention of college coaches, but they’re there to make themselves, and their team, better.
Their dedication won’t be for naught, said Milford High coach Brian Macchi.
“Any time you have the girls playing together, it’s going to be beneficial to the high school team,” he said. “And you can see their maturity as individuals, their physical strength, and their ability as softball players. They’re growing because they’re playing a travel-ball schedule. They play a ton of games against good competition, and the only result of that is getting better.”
The Thunder’s Milford contingent hopes those results will translate into another memorable spring. Despite all the hours they’ve logged on the diamond this summer, and all the long drives they’ve made with their parents to places like Newtown, Pa., for tournaments, LeBrun, Fairbanks, and Levine still never get sick of thinking about softball, particularly what they might be able to accomplish during their next high school season.
Read has noticed her teammates’ desire to prove themselves as worthy state champs.
“I think that as long as everyone stays focused and still has fun, they can do anything they want,” she said. “They have the passion. They have the skill. They have the drive. It’s just staying focused. To me, they look pretty focused still.”
Palioca powering up
Alec Palioca came to the Torrington (Conn.) Tigers of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League wanting to work on how he pitched with runners on base. The only problem: He’s been so dominant that he hasn’t found himself in many of those situations.
Through seven starts, the 6-foot-2, 180-pound righty from Wrentham was 4-1 with a 1.01 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 44.2 innings. In that time, he’s walked just 12 and allowed 29 hits. He was named Pitcher of the Month in June and was selected to play in the league’s all-star game in Nashua last week.
“My confidence has gotten a lot better,” said Palioca, who will be a junior at Wheaton College this fall. “And working from the stretch has gotten a lot better, which has been my main goal for this summer, so I'm feeling pretty good. It’s definitely been a good summer for baseball.”
Palioca had a strong sophomore season at Wheaton, where he used his fastball, slider, and splitter to compile a 9-1 record this spring. Now he is roommates with one of his rivals in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference, Babson’s Derek Richards of Framingham, and the two have spent the summer sharing pitching tips while living in a house with as many as six other Torrington teammates.
It’s been a different kind of summer for Palioca. He’s away from home and school, he’s taking long bus rides to places like Pittsfield and Newington, N.H., and he isn’t working a job other than the one he has to do when he’s given the ball to start. It’s given him a chance to focus completely on his craft, with the hopes of maybe one day grabbing the attention of a pro scout.
“I want to play at the highest level I can be able to and be the best pitcher I can be,” he said. “Absolutely, it’s been my goal since I was 2 years old to play in the big leagues. Every kid wants to do that.
“I'm just trying to set myself up with the best opportunity to reach that goal.”Phil Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.