By RUSSELL JONES
The Otter softball team has brought a kind of magic with them throughout the Division II playoffs. Comeback magic.
They were down in every game they’ve played this postseason. Yet, no team has been able to top them on the scoreboard when it’s all said and done. That is, until they ran up against number one seed and defending state champion Mt. Abe.
In the opening round of the playoffs, OV was down 16-4 to Vergennes going into the seventh and final inning before winning, 17-16. In the quarterfinals, the Otters were down 2-0 in the sixth to Rice before scoring six runs for the 6-2 win. In the semifinals, U-32 looked like they would advance before OV overcame a 10-3 deficit and won, 11-10.
Being down runs and coming back is familiar territory for the Otters and in the championship game, they once again found themselves down 2-1 in the fifth when Mt. Abe coach Don McCormick showed he had a few tricks up his sleeve, as well.
After senior Jess Murray drew a walk, McCormick put in freshman Cami Willsey to pinch-hit for senior Molly Murray.
“That was the game plan coming in,” McCormick said. “If we got a runner on base and we needed a big at-bat, we were going to put her in.”
And a big at-bat is what Willsey delivered. She stepped up to the plate and hit the first pitch she saw to the gap in right-center for an RBI double. The next batter, senior pitcher Ruby Ball singled back up the middle to set the table for cleanup hitter Erika Tracey.
Tracey waited for a pitch she liked and when she got it, she got all of it, smoking a line drive over the left field wall.
“I saw the ball and I knew I had to keep my weight back and wait on it,” Tracey said, “and it worked.”
The three run homer was most of the five-run fifth and the Eagles would add two more in the sixth, winning the game 9-1. This championship makes it three-in-a-row for the Eagles and McCormick.
“We try to use our young players as much as we can,” McCormick said. “It makes them much better when they have that experience behind them and we’ve been blessed to be able to make deep playoff runs for four straight years and it’s paid off.”
The Otters beat Mt. Abe during the regular season, in large part due to junior Morgan LaPorte’s pitching. McCormick said his team just wasn’t used to that velocity and credited the tough Lake Division schedule with honing his team’s batting skills with the regular fire ballers they face. LaPorte doesn’t throw fast, but she does throw strikes and she kept the Eagles off balance for the first four innings generating lots of popups.
“We’ve been working on adjusting to her in practice,” McCormick said. “We’ve tried to get the girls to generate their own power in their swing so they can hit her and not just pop it up.”
Otter Valley wasn’t able to bring that comeback magic to Castleton this last game, but co-coach Kelly Trayah said his team were still winners.
“There’s probably not many people who expected us to be here,” he said. “Just getting to this game, to me, is a win.”
His coaching partner agreed.
“To accomplish what these girls have accomplished this year is incredible,” Toni Poalino said.
The Otters have plenty of reasons to hold their heads high and look to the future, including the fact that there isn’t a single senior on this state runner-up squad.
“We’re planning to be back next year,” Trayah said. “We played well, we had good defense, the outfield tracked the balls well, there were just a couple of bloop hits that led to runs and Erika really got ahold of one.”
And he’s right. With the exception of the Willsey double and the Tracey home run, the only other hard-hit shot was a triple that Mt. Abe’s Ball banged off the fence in the first inning. All the other hits were singles or bloopers that just fell between the infield and the outfield.
The problem the Otters had in this game was at the plate. They could not get anything going against the hard-throwing Ball.
“She’s a seasoned senior, she has good control and she hits her spots,” Trayah said. “You have to shorten up your swings because she has great velocity.”
Ball was on top of her game Friday. The Otters only managed four hits against her and seven of their nine batters struck out at least once. Ball’s final line was four hits, nine strikeouts and two walks.
But this is a loss the Otters can learn from and use as fuel to drive them for next year, when the whole team should return focused and ready to make a return trip to Castleton.
As for the Eagles, McCormick has another batch of young players ready to step up and continue their winning ways, but for now he’s going to enjoy this win.
“It feels great, really great,” he said. “Kelly (Trayah) used to coach at Mt. Abe and I’m really happy with the way his team came in this year. This division is much better when OV is at that level.”
Editors note: In the printed version of this article we published a picture that inadvertently did not include Stephanie Palmer. We would like to apologize for this oversight and have used a photo in the online version, provided by Chrysty Palmer, that includes the entire team.