The second time around, Milford girls grab state title
WORCESTER — Ninety minutes before the Division 1 state softball final, Milford High coach Brian Macchi couldn’t stand still. He checked on his players and greeted scarlet-clad fans outside his dugout. From one person to the next he bounced quickly, every move dripping with pent-up energy.
Macchi and his team had been building to this day for two years.
In 2010, the Scarlet Hawks lost to King Philip Regional in the state final at Worcester State University, 10-1. Last Saturday night, they were back at Rockwood Field, looking to complete a perfect 25-0 season and walk away with the program’s first state crown.
“They’re the one thing that stands in our way of a state title,” said Macchi, pointing to the Malden High players warming up on the other side of the center-field fence. “Now it’s a matter of getting the job done. We don’t want to have that hurt again.”
Junior pitcher Shannon Smithknew the feeling. She was the starting pitcher in that game two years ago. Junior outfielder Rachel Levinewas a freshman on that team, too. Yet both were at ease as the sun hung low and sank slowly before the first pitch of their second chance at a state championship plaque.
Levine danced in the outfield to country music blaring from the public address speakers before the game, the red ribbon in her blonde hair bouncing behind her. Smith cracked a joke in the bullpen.
“If she’s being goofy,” said Smith’s father, Shawn, smiling, “that's a good thing.”
He was right. Smith had been overwhelmed in the pitching circle on the big stage two years ago, but against Malden, the two-time Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year and University of Kentucky commit was far more prepared to shoulder the moment.
She opened the game by striking out the side. She punched out 22 over nine scoreless innings in an overpowering performance.
“This is where we’ve wanted to be all year,” said Smith, who helped Milford to a 71-3 record over her three years.
“I'm so proud of this team,’’ she said. “No matter what happened, we just kept fighting, fighting, fighting.”
Milford missed an opportunity to break the scoreless tie in the fourth inning. David Levine, Rachel’s father, paced nervously along the outfield fence as Macchi’s team loaded the bases with no outs. Moments later, the inning was over. Still no score.
Another chance came two innings later, it seemed. Smith hit a long fly ball that squeezed screams of joy from Milford fans along the third-base line. When it was caught on the warning track, they groaned in unison.
As the game went to extra innings, the sun was gone and the temperature dropped. Fans from both sides grew silent, wondering how it would end.
Lifelong Milford fan Eleanor Guenther, 87, bracing for the colder temperatures with a American Legion Post 59 jacket and black knit gloves, tried to rally the crowd as she had done all game.
“Give me an ‘M!,’ ” she called out. “Give me an ‘I!’ ”
But little rattled Malden pitcher Kiara Amos, who works out with Smith at Planet Fastpitch in Uxbridge. She didn’t match Milford’s ace strikeout for strikeout (she fanned 10), but she was overpowering, keeping the Scarlet Hawks off the scoreboard through eight innings.
“It’s a helpless feeling being a fan,” said Milford athletic director Rich Piergustavo, whose freshman daughter Alexandra was just a few feet away in the dugout. “There’s nothing you can do.”
In the ninth inning, with two outs, freshman Taylor LeBrun did something.
Earlier that day, during pregame batting practice at the high school, LeBrun knew she might come through at the plate that night. She texted her dad, Jim, before the game as she had all season.
“Dad, I hit awesome!,” she wrote.
With one short swing, LeBrun poked an outside pitch up the middle, and Caroline Fairbanks was off from second base. She slid in safely and the Milford side erupted. They were state champions. The wait was over.
Macchi hugged his sister Jenna, a former stalwart at Milford and Boston College, and their father Peter — both assistant coaches — near home plate. Teary-eyed players jumped into each others’ arms and took pictures with the championship plaque until they were asked to leave the field.
Sirens and flashing lights from Milford police and fire vehicles escorted the team’s yellow school bus through town from the Hopedale line. Soon they were back where their day had started for batting practice, on their home diamond, the pain of two years ago left far behind them 40 minutes up the road.
The celebration pressed on, eventually giving way to Father’s Day.
“You know, this team is like a family,” said Macchi, a father of two, moments after the game-winning run scored. “You couldn’t ask for a better gift.”
The Division 1 baseball runner-up plaque hung from Algonquin Regional senior Vik Kozica’s right arm and dangled near his knees as he walked slowly toward the team bus waiting at Holy Cross.
The Tomahawks had fallen to Xaverian in the state title game, 7-1, and Kozica’s body language after the game read as clearly as a scoreboard.
When he spoke, though, he had the perspective of a senior captain whose team had been an underdog for two weeks of tournament play.
“I don't think we should even be upset because we made it this far,” he said. “Second place in Massachusetts is nothing to be ashamed of. They beat us tonight. That’s really all there is to it.”
Algonquin entered the Central tournament as the No. 10 seed with a record of 10-9. Then things began to click and senior righty Zach Graygot hot, pitching in four of the Tomahawks’ five straight tournament wins.
“We just played very good baseball,” said coach Neil Burkeof his team’s streak. “We got a few breaks there, too. But everything was going our way.”
In the dark parking lot behind the bleachers at Fitton Field in Worcester, Kozica looked back on his team’s run and mustered a smile. He had been a part of a team that sang on the bus on the way to every tournament game and grown good-luck mustaches at the end of the season.
But what stood out for him were the wildly improbable two weeks of baseball in which he and his friends played to their potential and shocked the state.
“It was unbelievable,” said the senior captain.
“The greatest group of guys I’ve ever played with. I’m gonna miss them. It’s been a hell of a ride.”
Phil Perry can be reached at email@example.com.