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PORTLAND—Somewhere Friday afternoon, Harry Houdini was smiling.
That’s because the McAuley softball team produced the mother (or should we say, sister) of all high-wire acts, escaping from jam after jam after jam in its Western Class A quarterfinal round playoff game versus Kennebunk.
The fourth-seeded Lions, hosting a postseason contest for the first time since 2005, erased an early 3-0 deficit with a six-run explosion in the second inning, then held on for dear life.
The fifth-ranked Rams got a run back in the fourth, loaded the bases with no outs in the fifth, but didn’t score and left two runners in scoring position in the sixth.
All of that paled in comparison to what happened in the seventh as McAuley appeared home free, up, 7-4, before Kennebunk pushed two runs across and had the tying run at third base with no outs, but sophomore pitcher Gabby Townsend (who combined with senior Jen Field to put on a bullet-dodging exhibition) somehow managed to escape with a little help from senior second baseman Sara Mercier and sophomore catcher Sam Schildroth and the Lions eked out a 7-6 victory.
The win not only lifted McAuley to 13-4 on the season and ended the Rams’ year at 12-5, it also proved to be the Lions’ first-ever quarterfinal round victory, sending them to top-ranked, undefeated and defending Class A champion South Portland for the semifinals, Saturday at 1 p.m.
“It’s definitely a thrill,” said the effervescent and unflappable Field. “My freshman year, we only won a couple games. Senior year, it feels good to have all this success. We’re playing well as a team. We’ve had our ups and downs, but we fight through it. We’re one of those teams that battles. We like the close games. We like to come through in the end. We like to show we can dig deep and go for it. It feels good. I’m really proud of the program.”
The teams had similar regular seasons, each winning a dozen times.
Kennebunk’s year was highlighted by a 12-4 home romp over perennial powerhouse Biddeford in the finale, May 31.
McAuley, meanwhile, did a great job building on last spring’s 11-win campaign, which ended with a 6-4 loss to South Portland in the quarterfinals. The Lions won their first 11 games this spring (including a 5-4 extra inning home win over Westbrook) before falling, 3-1, at home to Thornton Academy. The Lions then lost, 7-1, at Scarborough and 7-1 to visiting Biddeford, before getting back in the win column with an easy 14-2 (five inning) triumph at Portland. McAuley closed with a confidence-building, hard-fought 1-0 home loss to South Portland.
The Lions edged visiting Kennebunk, 3-2, on May 2. The teams had no playoff history.
That’s not exactly accurate.
The squads actually tried to get the game in Thursday. In that one, the Rams scored in the top of the first, but Schildroth answered with a monster home run to dead centerfield in the bottom of the second to make it 1-1. Then, in the top of the fourth, with the game still deadlocked, thunder and lightning intervened and the contest was called.
Maine Principals’ Association rules dictate that games have to be made up in their entirety and it’s a good thing because all seven innings were delicious in Friday afternoon’s Instant Classic.
The tone was set for this one in the top of the first.
Kennebunk had a great chance to take command, but wasted an opportunity.
Second baseman Meg Cadigan led off by beating out a bunt single, but she was gunned down by Schidlroth on an attempted steal. Shortstop Rachel Magalski followed with a single to center. Standout catcher Janelle Bouchard followed by lining a shot down the third base line, but Lions’ senior third baseman Maura Esten caught it and threw to first to double up Magalski, as sophomore first baseman Molly Mack made a nice scoop of a low throw.
Rams’ pitcher Hannah King was dominant in the bottom half, inducing three groundouts, and the visitors went out and took the lead in the top of the second.
Third baseman Carinn Burns led off by reaching on an Esten error. King then launched a double over the head of McAuley’s standout junior centerfielder Shelby Bryant, but stunningly, Burns stopped at third and Bryant’s throw back to the infield was taken by senior shortstop Kayla Daigle, who tagged out King rounding second for out number one.
Townsend appeared primed to get out of the mess when she struck out first baseman Kelsey Livermore, but centerfielder Maddie Kasprazak walked and with two strikes, leftfielder Brittany Madore ripped a single to left to drive in Burns and King for a 2-0 lead. Rightfielder Liz Cable followed with a double to left to make it 3-0, but Field threw to Daigle, who tossed to Esten to tag out Cable attempting to stretch the hit into a triple.
Kennebunk had a 3-0 lead, but it could have been more.
When McAuley came in for the bottom of the second, Field began warming up, but before she’d have a chance to take her turn on the hill, her bat helped the Lions bounce back.
McAuley, which scored one run or fewer in four of its final five regular season games, needed to get the bats going and finally did.
Schildroth led off with a walk. Esten forced her at second with a ground out, but Mack followed with a sharp single to center. After freshman designated player Sam Libby moved the runners up with a ground out to second, Daigle reached on an infield hit, scoring Esten. An error on Burns allowed Mack to score as well and Daigle to move to second. Field, one pitch after just missing a home run deep down the leftfield line, lined a single off Burns’ glove to keep the inning alive.
“We hit really well today,” Field said. “We hadn’t had a lot of hits in a long time.”
Bryant walked to load the bases and Townsend helped herself, singling to left, scoring Daigle and Field for a 4-3 lead.
“I think once we got a good hit, then we all followed through,” Townsend said.
An error by Kasprazak moved the runners to second and third and the Lions weren’t finished.
Mercier followed with another single, this one to center, and Bryant and Townsend scored to make it 6-3.
“It was contagious that inning,” said Mercier. “Hitting is contagious and we all got at it.”
“We haven’t been scoring many runs,” Ferrante said. “I said, ‘Let’s play for one.’ I shuffled the lineup a little bit. I thought the key was our 8-9 batters getting on. That inning gave us momentum. We told them to cut down on their swings and choke up. We put it in play and had more baserunners. We only had one strikeout. When we got to six (runs), I thought we needed more.”
Schildroth almost broke it open with a deep drive to right, but Cable stuck her glove out at the perfect time and snared a blast to minimize the damage.
Field came out to pitch the top of the third and after giving up a bunt single to Cadigan, who went to second on a passed ball, struck out Magalski, got Bouchard to hit a sharp ground ball to Daigle (who threw to Esten to get Cadigan), then ended the inning by inducing Burns to ground out to short.
“I warmed up a little before the game, but I didn’t know I’d go in,” said Field. “(Coach) told me I was going in. I did what I had to do.”
The hosts went in order in their half of the inning and Kennebunk got a run back in the top of the fourth.
Field fanned King and got Livermore to pop to Daigle at short to start the frame, but Kasprazak singled to center, Madore reached on a bloop single down the rightfield line and Cable ripped a single to left to score Kasprazak. Cadigan struck out looking, but the Rams were back within two runs, 6-4.
In the bottom of the fourth, McAuley had a great chance to build on its lead as Daigle led off with a single and Field beat out a bunt, but Bryant grounded into a pitcher-to-third force out and Townsend flew out to right with Daigle moving up to third. After Bryant moved into scoring position with a steal of second, Mercier walked to load the bases, but Schildroth bounced sharply to short and Magalski tagged Bryant to end the threat.
Field’s final inning on the mound proved to be her greatest escape.
Magalski led off with a single to left and moved to second when Townsend’s throw went awry. Bouchard followed with a single and Burns walked to load the bags with no one down.
That proved to be no problem for the Lions’ hurler.
In a sign of things to come in a bigger situation two innings later, McAuley got an out at the plate as King bounced to Mercier, who threw to Schildroth for a force. Field then ended her stint by fanning both Livermore and Kasprazak looking to end it.
“It was definitely a battle,” Field said. “I tried to ignore those runners and go for the batter. I know we have the defense behind us. If they got runs, we knew we had to get runs back.”
The Lions stretched their lead to 7-4 in the bottom of the fifth.
With one down, Mack reached on an error by Magalski and Libby was safe on an error by Cadigan. Daigle followed with a single to center, scoring Mack and McAuley had a run it would desperately need.
In the top of the sixth, Townsend found her way back to the mound and promptly got back in trouble.
Back-to-back walks to Madore and Cable, the 8 and 9 hitters, proved ominous, but Townsend got Cadigan looking, forced Magalski to fly to right and after throwing a wild pitch to put the runners at second and third, she induced a fly to center by Bouchard, that Bryant struggled with, but caught, to put the Lions three outs from victory.
“I thought it would hurt us that Gabby threw yesterday,” Ferrante said. “We had her on a pitch count after playing a scrimmage Tuesday. I was afraid after yesterday that (the Rams had) seen her. She didn’t have her stuff. I brought in Jen since she’s been consistent. I wanted to just use Gabby in the seventh, but she said, ‘I can get you six outs.'”
Townsend led off the bottom of the sixth with a single to right and Mercier bunted her to second, but Schildroth bounced out to third and Esten hit back to the mound, keeping it a 7-4 game entering the fateful top of the seventh.
Burns led off the final inning off by drawing a walk. King then blooped a single to left that Field got a glove on, but couldn’t corral. Livermore then got all of an outside offering and pounded a shot over the head of senior rightfielder Nona Gillis. Burns and King easily scored, but Livermore had to stop at third.
Still, the tying run was on the verge of scoring and there was no one out.
McAuley was in serious trouble, but in reality, the Lions had the Rams right where they wanted them.
Kasprazak had a chance to tie the score, but she hit a sharp grounder to Mercier, who looked Livermore back to third, then threw to first for out number one.
Madore then had her chance and made good contact, but unfortunately for the visitors, the ball again came to Mercier. This time, Livermore broke for the plate. Mercier’s throw was just in the nick of time. Schildroth blocked the dish and made the tag for out number two and Madore, now the tying run, found herself at first.
“At that point, I was thinking we’d have to get back and hit,” said Field. “(That out) was a relief.”
“I was very, very scared, but we’d been (getting out of trouble) all day,” Mercier said. “We’ve been doing it all season. We’ve walked a very thin line. I thought we could get out of it and if they scored a run, I thought we’d go and get it with our bats in the next inning. I looked up and saw (the runner) was going. Sam was ready. I threw the ball. I was hoping she’d get it and tag her out. I was nervous she’d drop it, but she got it. It was perfect. She made a great play.”
“The ball was hit to our senior captain twice,” Ferrante added. “We had the infield in. The catcher blocked the plate and made a nice tag. That was it.”
It came down to Cable, who had been such a productive hitter on the day. She hit a slow grounder to Daigle, who threw to Mack. The bang-bang play at first resulted in an out call by the umpire (much to the chagrin of the Kennebunk rooters) and the palpitating ballgame was over.
McAuley 7 Kennebunk 6.
“I just focused on the placement of where I was pitching,” Townsend said. “I knew the defense was behind me and if the run scored, we’d be able to play offense and hopefully get it done.”
“We came and were ready to play,” Mercier said. “We were pumped up. It’s the end of the season. We came at it with our best. I remember when we were terrible. I’m so happy to be part of this. We know we have good players.”
Townsend pitched the first two and last two innings, surrendering five runs (two earned) on seven hits, four walks, two wild pitches and two strikeouts. She earned the save.
“We played yesterday, so coming back and pitching again today, they just got around on me,” Townsend said. “Jen came in and did her job well.”
Field gave up one earned run on six hits and a walk in three innings. She fanned five and improved to 3-3 on the year.
Offensively, the Lions got three hits from Daigle and two apiece from Field and Townsend. Daigle, Mercier and Townsend all had two RBI. Mack scored twice. Bryant, Daigle, Esten, Field and Townsend once apiece. McAuley didn’t have an extra base hit, but Bryant stole a base.
For Kennebunk, King took the loss and dropped to 6-3 after giving up seven runs (four earned) on nine hits, with three walks and a K in six innings.
Cable, Cadigan, King, Madore and Magalski all had multiple hits. Cable, Livermore and Madore had two RBI apiece. Burns and Kasprazak had two runs each. Cable and King doubled. Livermore tripled. Kasprazak had a steal.
McAuley hasn’t beaten South Portland since the 2004 season, but came close against the Red Riots in last year’s playoff game and again in the regular season finale.
The Lions are playing with house money going into Saturday’s contest and believe they can find a way to earn another improbable win.
“We held South Portland to 1-0 last time,” Field said. “Hopefully we can do that again and win.”
“We’ve had close games against them,” said Townsend. “Hopefully this time we can win.”
“I can’t wait to play South Portland,” Mercier added. “Our last three games against them have been great games. We’ll come after them hard. We want to shock them and knock them out of the tournament.”
Ferrante suggested that it meant a lot to his seniors to live to play at least once more.
“We get to keep playing,” he said. “They feel good about it. We get one more day.”
McAuley senior Jen Field fires a strike during her three-inning relief stint.
Kennebunk rightfielder Liz Cable reaches for a hit off the bat of McAuley sophomore Gabby Townsend in the sixth inning. Cable held Townsend to a single on the play.
McAuley senior Kayla Daigle settles under a pop fly and makes the out.
McAuley senior Jen Field lays down a bunt during the fourth inning. Field wound up beating the throw to first base for a single.
Kennebunk’s Hannah King takes a cut during Friday’s game. King had two hits and scored a run in the defeat.
McAuley assistant coach Jim Conley sings the National Anthem prior to Friday’s game.
McAuley coach Robby Ferrante talks to the victorious Lions after Friday’s historic win. McAuley goes to top ranked, undefeated, defending Class A champion South Portland for the semifinals Saturday at 1 p.m.
K- 030 100 2- 6 13 4
M- 060 010 x- 7 9 2
Madore singled to left, Burns and King scored. Cable doubled to left, Madore scored.
Daigle reached on infield single, Esten scored. Mack scored on error. Townsend singled to left, Daigle and Field scored. Schildroth singled to center, Bryant and Townsend scored.
Cable singled to left, Kasprazak scored.
Daigle singled to center, Mack scored.
Livermore tripled to right, Burns and King scored.
K- Cable, Cadigan, King, Madore, Magalski
M- Daigle 3, Field, Townsend 2
K- Burns, Kasprazak 2, King, Madore
M- Mack 2, Bryant, Daigle, Esten, Field, Townsend
K- Cable, Livermore, Madore 2
M- Daigle, Mercier, Townsend 2
K- Cable, King
King and Bouchard; Townsend, Field (3), Townsend (6) and Schildroth
King (L, 6-3) 6 IP 9 H 7 R 4 ER 3 BB 1 K
Field (W, 3-3) 3 IP 6 H 1 R 1 ER 1 BB 5 K
Townsend (SAVE) 4 IP 7 H 5 R 2 ER 4 BB 2 K 2 WP
McAuley sophomore pitcher Gabby Townsend delivers a pitch during Friday’s Western A quarterfinal versus Kennebunk. Townsend and senior Jen Field combined to hold off the Rams for a history-making 7-6 triumph.
More photos below.