At last! South Portland wins first softball title

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STANDISH — Alas, the waiting is over for South Portland softball.

History will record the mastery of junior pitching virtuoso Alexis Bogdanovich and the magic in that bat of classmate Katlin Norton that appeared once again when it mattered most in presenting the Red Riots with their first-ever state championship on June 19, 2010, with a 1-0 victory over the Bangor Rams in the Class A final on a near-perfect late Saturday afternoon for softball at Ward Field on the campus of St. Joseph’s College.

Billed as the marquee pitching show of the season with the cosmic forces of Bogdanovich (15-1) and Bangor senior righthander Samantha Bedore (14-2) set to collide, it was indeed all that and then some, but in the blinding glare of the spotlight when heroes rise and others fade away, Bogdanovich elevated and put her star down in a thrilling drama not decided until the final act.

While Norton reinforced her legacy as late-inning protagonist saving one more curtain call after her three-run home run in the Western A Final collapsed Scarborough, collaring destiny with an encore performance worthy of her own chapter in South Portland’s book of champions.

Gripped in a scoreless tie with one down in the bottom of the sixth inning, Norton wiped clean the collective angst of all those who had come before with one swing for the ages. With freshman shortstop Danica Gleason coiled in anticipation at first base, Norton stunned Bedore and Bangor with a top-spin line drive that got down in left-center and delivered the only run the Red Riots (19-1) would need to capture the one trophy that proved so elusive.

Norton’s sinking line drive touched down and skipped off the glove of the Rams leftfielder in the half-slide toward center. In the frenetic scramble that followed, Gleason hit the gas and never once looked back. Rounding third and closing fast on history, Gleason stomped on home plate and moved South Portland within three outs of the capstone victory waiting for them to summit.

“I can’t even describe how I feel right now,” said Norton. “It’s like I can finally catch my breath now. It’s just wonderful. We didn’t know this team and had never faced Bedore. We knew it was going to be our toughest game, but that everyone is hittable. When I was standing there on second base I was just hoping that one run would be enough and that we only had three outs to get. There were two great pitchers out there, but in the end Alexis was the better one.”

Bogdanovich returned to the mound and hushed up all the fuss surrounding Bedore in the days leading up to the final reckoning, blasting the catcher’s mitt of senior catcher Stephanie Thibeault with another round of fastballs to yank the rug out from a Bangor team fixing to make off with its first state championship after taking the East for the first time in three tries.

But on this day, Bogdanovich turned up all aces with an electric outing in the circle that became the stuff of legend. The hard-throwing righthander arrested Bangor’s lineup with well-placed velocity in a seven-inning gem on the hill. Flirting with a no-hitter to begin the top of the sixth, Bogdanovich stuck out 14 Rams in a three-hit shutout that touched off a victory celebration long in the making.

“Bangor is a great hitting team and Bedore is a great pitcher,” Bogdanovich. “She throws hard, but the difference this year was we had confidence in our hitting. We wanted this really bad and knew that if we could hit we could get by her. It came down to one inning. It’s a big accomplishment for our school because we had never done this before.”

This South Portland team had finally escaped out from under the Red Storm shadow that had blanketed them since stealing a walk-off win here in 2005 in a driving Sebago Lake rain to decide the Western A champion. The Red Riots sent Jess Flynn to the mound and fielded an all-star third basemen by the name of Amanda Aceto in the school’s first state championship showing, the first of present day coach Ralph Aceto’s three daughters to star in South Portland uniforms. That year, the Red Riots met Messalonskee of Oakland and fell three-runs short in a 7-4 loss in the state final.

“When I took this job, I told my oldest daughter that I was going to bring one back for her,” said Aceto. “Those were two great teams with Bedore and Alexis battling it out. We did a great job of getting the bat on the ball and we’ve talked about that since the regular season ended. We said, ‘let’s just put the ball in play and see what happens,’ but they both made big pitches when they had to and it came down to one inning. We got the one run in the sixth and that’s just the way you want it. Bangor came back to win the East final and we didn’t want to give them too many chances.”

Bogdanovich faced 26 Bangor hitters, just five over the minimum, starting 23 of them out with strikes. She fanned the side in order in the first and third innings, collected three more strikeouts to waste the Rams fourth and mowed down her seventh-straight for the first out of the fifth.

Needing 109 pitches to outlast Bedore, Maine’s Gatorade Softball Player of the Year, Bogdanovich gave up just three singles, walked one batter and hit another, allowing just one base runner to reach third base. Bogdanovich hit Bangor senior Jeri Cosgrove, the daughter of UMaine football coach Jack Cosgrove, twice actually with one down in the fifth. The first pitch of Cosgrove’s at-bat could be heard clearly grazing the front of her jersey, but the umpire missed the call. Cosgrove pulled herself up off the dirt, showed bunt and took a riser off the end of her bat in what sounded quite a bit like a foul ball. This time, Cosgrove was awarded first base and her pinch runner swiped a pair of bags to reach third but no further.

In the top of the sixth, Bogdanovich survived the only real trouble she faced allowing consecutive singles to Bangor senior shortstop Mariah Cassum and dangerous junior rightfielder Sadie Redman. Getting through the top of the Rams batting order was about to become a lot more important as Bogdanovich whiffed junior Hannah Lust in the three-hole again as she did in each of her three trips, and then got Bedore on a ground ball to Gleason at short to strand a pair.

In the decisive home half of the sixth, Gleason reached for the second time on an error after dropping a bloop single into short-left in the first. The future of Red Riots softball along with classmate Erin Bogdanovich, Gleason grounded sharply to short, but Cassum couldn’t find the ball in her glove and had no chance to get her when she did.

And then it happened.

Norton dug in to battle Bedore for her third time after lining hard to left-center in the first and again just softer and foul down the line in left to end the third, leaving junior Danielle DiBiase on second base after she drew a one-out walk. Fresh off crushing a majestic three-run homer in the fifth inning of the regional title game to eliminate the scourge of Scarborough, Norton dug in from the right side, picked out a 2-0 fastball and knocked out the Rams with a game-winning RBI double to left that brought Gleason around all the way from third and the first softball state title back to South Portland.

Bogdanovich returned in the seventh and overwhelmed Bangor junior Kim Jordan to pick up a four-pitch strikeout, but senior Eliza Estabrook slapped the first pitch she saw back up the box and through into center to put the tying run on first base. With home run potential, Cosgrove stepped in and fell behind quickly 0-2 but fought back even. After Cosgrove fouled off three pitches, Bogdanovich inked her 14th and final strikeout for the second out of the seventh.

Now just one out away from emerging with the biggest victory of her career, Bogdanovich stared in at diminutive slap-hitting lefty Jade Baumrind, the eighth hitter in the Rams lineup. But before she could attend to that, Bangor made a gutsy move and sent the runner off to gain scoring position. Estabrook just barely did when Thibeault sent a rocket to second but just a little high to the first base side of the bag. Gleason gloved it and put the tag on, but got Estabrook on her numbers in a headfirst slide in a bang-bang play that could have gone either way.

It wouldn’t matter. Baumrind eventually did slap a bunt down fair but Bogdanovich fielded it and threw her final strike to senior Olivia Whitton at first and South Portland danced with delight on infield dirt celebrating as the Class A state champions should with a 1-0 victory over the Bangor Rams (18-2).

“I’m so glad for our team,” said Thibeault. “But to bring the championship back to our school and our community is awesome. I couldn’t ask for anything better right now. When we scored the run I was thinking it’s not over yet. We need to get three more outs and I was hoping we could do it as quickly as possible. Alexis hit her spots from the start and that was crucial for us. She was great out there today.”

For her part, Bedore came as advertised to lead Bangor. The righty tossed her own three-hitter and picked up eight strikeouts, one in each of her six innings of work and two in the second and sixth. She walked three, surrendered three hits and let in the unearned run. Gleason singled in the first, Thibeault lined a base hit to left in the third and Norton squared up a fastball to win it. The loss to South Portland was just the eighth of her career against 44 wins. Bedore pushed her career strikeout total over 630, good for a remarkable 12-plus each time out. Next year, she’ll be sipping her Gatorade in another Rams uniform, off to the University of Rhode Island in the fall.

Just a junior, Bogdanovich was superb throughout the regular season and beyond, picking up all four playoff wins and checking out with 97 innings pitched in 17 starts. In those innings she struck out 142 batters including 24 in her four postseason wins.

Bogdanovich will return next year, as will Norton and her team-leading .608 batting average and 34 RBI. Gleason will take short again as a sophomore and DiBiase will resume her leadoff and second base duties. Starting at third, Amanda Linscott will come back as a senior. In leftfield, Kalie Swiger will return as a junior and keep an eye on Erin Bogdanovich, the left-handed starting centerfielder and sometimes pitcher when she returns to patrol the outfield as the Red Riots look to establish a pattern of championships.

Best of all, somewhere on Saturday, longtime South Portland softball loyalist Jerry Kill was smiling. The father of former star and batting champion Kristin Kill had been there every step of the way but passed away last August. The team named the scoreboard in left at Wainwright Farms after him in a ceremony last month.

Now, the Red Riots are the best Class A softball team in the state.

The scoreboard tells the story as South Portland’s softball team wins Class A for the first time.

South Portland junior Danielle DiBiase is thrown out trying to steal second during Saturday’s contest.

South Portland’s Erin and Alexis Bogdanovich were all smiles after the win.

To the victorious Red Riots went the spoils of a championship trophy.

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South Portland senior Stephanie Thibeault leads her team in the postgame celebration.

South Portland junior ace Alexis Bogdanovich prepares to deal one of her many strikes during Saturday’s victory. She fanned 14 in leading the Red Riots to their first title.