Portland parties like it's 2004, knocks off TA to reach regional final

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Portland sophomore third baseman Grace Stacey, left, freshman catcher Laini Legere and senior shortstop Morgan Boyle mob junior pitcher Jess Brown after the final out of Saturday’s 4-1 win over Thornton Academy in a Class A South semifinal. The Bulldogs will face top-ranked, undefeated Scarborough in the regional final Wednesday.

Chris Lambert photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

Portland 4 Thornton Academy 1

TA- 010 000 0- 1 4 1
P- 220 000 0- 4 4 0

Bottom 1st
Crosby doubled to left, Boyle and Gilbert scored.

Top 2nd
Casey flew out to center, Paradis scored.

Bottom 2nd
Brown singled to right, Pence and Watson scored.

Runs:
TA- Paradis
P- Boyle, Gilbert, Pence, Watson

RBI:
TA- Casey
P- Brown, Crosby 2

Doubles:
TA- Collins
P- Crosby, Rosmus

Stolen bases:
TA- Howe, Paradis
P- Brown, Gilbert

Left on base:
TA- 3
P- 4

Colucci, Verreault (2) and Botting; Brown and Legere

TA:
Colucci (L) 1.2 IP 3 H 4 R 2 ER 3 BB 1 K 1 WP
Verreault 4.1 IP 1 H 0 R 0 BB 5 K

P:
Brown (W, 11-2) 7 IP 4 H 1 R 1 ER 0 BB 4 K 1 WP

Time: 1:25

PORTLAND—Portland’s softball team made tremendous strides in 2016, posting a winning record and capturing a playoff game for the first time in over a decade.

And looking back, that was only a warmup.

The 2017 Bulldogs have raised the bar dramatically and now find themselves two victories from reaching the pinnacle after an impressive victory Saturday morning at Payson Park.

Hosting No. 3 Thornton Academy, a playoff regular, in the Class A South semifinals, second-ranked Portland took another step in its development, played flawless defense, got terrific pitching from junior ace Jess Brown and produced a pair of timely hits to move on to the regional final for the first time since 2004.

After Brown worked out of a jam in the top of the first, another program stalwart and leader, senior captain and second baseman Taylor Crosby, ripped a two-run double to put the Bulldogs ahead to stay.

The Golden Trojans got a run back in the second, on a sacrifice fly from sophomore designated player Sarah Casey, but in the bottom half, with two outs and the bases loaded, Brown proved once again she’s as adept with a bat in her hands as she is on the mound, cracking a clutch two-run single to produce a 4-1 lead.

Brown then only got stronger on the hill, retiring 16 straight batters in one stretch before allowing a double in the seventh inning, but Brown retired the last two batters she faced and Portland was able to celebrate a 4-1 victory.

Brown threw a four-hitter and had two RBI and Crosby also drove in two runs as the Bulldogs improved to 16-2, ended Thornton Academy’s season at 14-4 and advanced to meet Goliath, aka top-ranked Scarborough (18-0), in the Class A Final Wednesday at 7 p.m., at St. Joseph’s College in Standish.

“I’m so happy for this group,” said Portland coach Robbie Ferrante, who, in a previous stint with the program, also coached the 2004 Bulldogs. “They’ve put a lot of time into it and we’re still together. We’ve taken a couple more steps this year.”

Thirteen years in the making

The last time Portland hosted a semifinal round playoff game, the year was 2004, George W. Bush was in the final year of his first term, the Boston Red Sox hadn’t won a World Series in 86 years and Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the rest of the New England Patriots “only” had two Super Bowl rings to their credit.

Usher’s “Burn” was the top song on the charts and “Dodgeball” and “Spider-Man 2” were the popular movies.

The Bulldogs welcomed Biddeford the afternoon of June 5, 2004 and beat them, 7-3, en route to an eventual state championship.

No current Bulldog was even in school then and the youngest of this year’s group was in diapers that day.

Saturday, Portland finally got to host a semifinal again.

That was due in large part to a terrific regular season, which saw the Bulldogs win 14 of 16 games (see sidebar, below, for links to previous game stories) and earn the second seed in Class A South.

Thursday, Portland rode a Brown three-hitter to a 6-0 victory over No. 10 South Portland in the Class A South quarterfinals.

Thornton Academy, a perennial contender, went 13-3, losing only to Massabesic, Portland and Scarborough, and as the No. 3 seed, downed No. 6 Massabesic, 14-2, in six-innings, Thursday in its quarterfinal.

The teams’ met back on May 1, when the Bulldogs rolled, 9-1, in Saco, behind Brown’s four-hit, 12-strikeout gem and junior centerfielder Kit Rosmus’ four hits, which included a home run.

This time around, not surprisingly, Portland got pushed harder by the Golden Trojans, but rose to the challenge and kept its season alive.

Brown got junior Kaitlin Verreault to fly out to center to start the game, but junior Louisa Colucci, Brown’s opposite number, blooped a single to left and after Brown threw a wild pitch, sophomore shortstop Olivia Howe lined a single to right, putting runners at the corners. Howe proceeded to steal second to really put Brown in a jam, but she blew strike three past sophomore catcher Jenica Botting and got sophomore third baseman Hannah Collins to line the ball right at junior Rosmus to escape.

“I was worried about those hits going to gaps, but my defense made plays,” Brown said. “I had some jitters, but I got out of it. Then we got runs on the board and that felt good.”

“(Jess) had to get two outs,” Ferrante said. “She knew she had to reach back and she did and then we capitalized.”

The Bulldogs got their offense going in the bottom half.

Senior captain and shortstop Morgan Boyle led off by drawing a walk. Junior leftfielder Sydney Gilbert followed by laying down a bunt in front of the plate. Botting pounced on the ball and tried to throw Gilbert out, but she hit the runner in the back and Gilbert was safe at first while Boyle raced to third. Gilbert stole second and after Brown popped out to second, Crosby delivered the big hit, grounding a double past the third base bag and Boyle and Gilbert scored easily.

“I needed to get the right mindset,” Crosby said. “We’ve hit that pitcher before. I knew runners were on and my teammates needed me. I knew I could get a hit. That was huge for our confidence. That kept us going and kept us all upbeat.”

“Obviously jumping on them was huge,” Ferrante said. “We did it the first time. In the games we’ve lost, we fell behind. I just we’re a good team playing from ahead. A senior captain had the big hit.”

After Rosmus looked at strike three, freshman catcher Laini Legere popped out to short, but Portland had a 2-0 lead.

Thornton Academy kept the pressure on in the top of the second and got a run back.

Leading off, freshman leftfielder Olivia Paradis singled to left-center, then stole second. After senior first baseman Kaya O’Connor sacrificed Paradis up to third, Casey hit a fly ball deep enough to center to bring her home. Brown then struck out freshman rightfielder Amanda Bogardus to keep the score 2-1.

The Bulldogs exercised a disciplined eye at the plate in the bottom half and as a result, eventually plated two more runs.

Sophomore Grace Stacey led off by drawing a walk. Junior rightfielder Mabel Pence bunted in front of the plate, but Botting pounced on the ball and fired a strike to second for a force out. After a wild pitch moved Pence up, freshman first baseman Callie Watson drew a walk as well. Boyle popped out to second and Gilbert hit a grounder to third that appeared primed to end the inning, but Collins couldn’t handle it and the bases were loaded for Brown.

Brown, who has delivered multiple big hits this spring, saved her biggest for Saturday, as she roped a single to right-center, bringing home Pence and Watson for a 4-1 lead. Gilbert went to third on the play.

“Right before I got up to bat, I thought ‘right-center looks pretty good,'” Brown said. “Luckily, I got it into the gap and they scored.”

“(Jess) hits that way anyway,” Ferrante said. “She’s a good batter. We’re comfortable with her at bat.”

That would be it for Colucci, who was replaced by Verreault.

Verreault was greeted by Crosby, who, after Brown stole second, bid to break the game open with a looping fly ball down the rightfield line, but Bogardus ran it down for the third out, keeping the Golden Trojans alive.

At that juncture, the prospect of there being only two combined hits and no more runs the rest of the way was unthinkable, but that’s how it played out.

Brown was dominant in the top of the third, getting Verreault to pop out to first, Colucci to line softly to Boyle and Howe to hit a line drive on a full count pitch right into the glove of Boyle to retire the side.

Rosmus led off the bottom half of the inning with a double past the dive of Thornton Academy sophomore centerfielder Kylie Lavallee in right-center, but she’d be stranded as Verreault struck out Legere with an off-speed pitch and after throwing a wild pitch and falling behind Stacey 3-0, Verreault fanned her as well. When Verreault caught Pence looking at strike three, the inning was over.

Brown made very quick work of the Golden Trojans in the top of the fourth, getting Botting to fly out to Gilbert in left (earlier in the at-bat, Portland assistant coach Chris Gilbert, Sydney’s father, motioned her to take a few steps in and as a result, she was perfectly positioned), Collins to ground out to Pence (with Crosby covering) on a check swing and Paradis to pop out to second.

In the bottom half, Portland went in order for the first time, as Watson grounded out to short, Boyle chased an off-speed pitch for strike three and Gilbert bounced out to the shortstop.

O’Connor tried to bunt her way on to start the fifth, but Brown got to the ball and with Crosby covering, threw to first for the out (with Crosby making a nice catch across her body with her momentum going the other way). Brown then got Casey to bounce out to third and struck out senior Taylor Paquette.

Brown made the loudest out of the game to start the bottom half, but her fly ball deep down the leftfield line was tracked down by Paradis. Crosby then bounced out to third and Rosmus bounced out to third as well.

With the top of the order up in the sixth, the Golden Trojans had a chance to get back in the game, but Brown wouldn’t allow it, getting Verreault to bounce back to the mound, Colucci to pop out foul to Legere and Howe to sky to Rosmus in center.

The Bulldogs went quietly again in the bottom half, as Legere bounced out to third, Stacey hit a deep fly ball to right and Pence struck out.

Brown got Botting to pop back to her to start the seventh, marking the 16th straight batter she retired, but Collins followed with a ringing double down the leftfield line to break the spell.

Thornton Academy couldn’t take advantage, however, as Paradis hit a soft line drive that landed in front of Boyle and the shortstop threw to first for the second out.

That left the game up to O’Connor, who pounded the ball to left, but Gilbert was again in perfect position and she snared it to bring the curtain down on Portland’s 4-1 victory, which needed only 85 minutes to complete.

“We’re making history,” Crosby said. “It’s a complete shock, but we’re so ready for it. I always dreamed about this, but when I first started high school, I didn’t think this could come true. We came ready today. We knew what we needed to do. We fought the entire way and played our game.”

“Last year when we played (TA) in the regular season, we gave up 10 runs in the last inning, so I knew anything was possible,” Brown said. “But we were playing such good defense and that gave me confidence. We’ve had no pressure on us, which is great. We’ve proved ourselves. It’s been great to come back into relevance.”

Brown, Maine’s Gatorade Player of the Year, improved to 11-2 on the season with another gem. She wasn’t overpowering this time, only fanning four, but she only allowed one run on four hits without a single walk. Brown threw one wild pitch.

“Laini and I started learning the batters a little more and the defense was ready for where they were hitting,” Brown said. “They really stepped up. They were grabbing everything. Everybody was solid. We gained confidence and I have a tendency to get better as the game goes on.”

“Jess was amazing today,” Crosby said. “She’s really proved herself all year. I have complete trust in her. She knows we have a good defense and she did what she does.” 

“The key was, some innings (Jess) only threw five, six pitches,” Ferrante added. “She had that great stretch of 16 in a row. She hit her spots. The last two games, the South Portland game and this game, those games may have been her two toughest games since she had to live up to the (Gatorade) expectations. She more than stepped up.”

Portland got runs scored from Boyle, Gilbert, Pence and Watson.

Brown and Crosby both had two RBI.

Brown and Gilbert both stole bases.

The Bulldogs left four runners on base.

Thornton Academy got a run scored from Paradis and an RBI from Casey. Howe and Paradis stole bases.

The Golden Trojans left three runners on.

Neither team had a repeat hitter.

Colucci took the loss, giving up four runs (two earned) on three hits in 1.2 innings. She walked three, struck out one and threw a wild pitch.

Verreault was lights out in relief, retiring the final 12 batters she faced to keep Thornton Academy in the game. Verreault allowed just one run in 4.1 shutout innings. She struck out five and didn’t walk a batter.

Off to St. Joe’s

Portland has quite the mountain to scale Wednesday evening, but the Bulldogs have absolutely nothing to lose against the prohibitive favorites who have defeated their 18 foes to date by a composite 241-15 margin.

Scarborough won the regular season meeting, 9-0, May 3 at home and dominated Portland in a non-countable league semifinal last weekend, 19-0. 

The teams have played three previous times in the playoffs. The Bulldogs won the first encounter, 3-1, in the 2004 Western A Final, but the Red Storm blanked Portland, 3-0, in the 2006 Western A quarterfinals and in last year’s quarterfinals, Scarborough, behind then-junior Lilly Volk’s perfect game, beat the Bulldogs, 12-0, in six-innings.

Portland has its work cut out, but this team isn’t ready to be done and will look to shock the world.

“We’ll be underdogs, but we’ll come in and try and play a perfect game,” Crosby said. “Our defense has to be flawless and with the bats, we have to start early.”

“Our football coach (Jim Hartman) has talked to a few of us and has given us advice,” Brown said. “He told us (Scarborough’s) just an obstacle, just any other team. Just getting there is amazing. I’m excited.”

“This year’s team believes in itself,” Ferrante added. “They know what it takes. They weren’t going to go away quietly. We won’t the next time we play either. I’ll let the girls know they deserve to be there. Hopefully, we’ll be as loose as we can be. For every batter we get out, hopefully we’ll get more confident. We’ll enjoy it.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Portland junior Jess Brown delivers a pitch. Brown only allowed four hits in earning her 11th win of the season.

Thornton Academy junior Katilin Verreault throws a strike. Verreault did a terrific job in relief, only allowing one hit in 4.1 shutout innings.

Portland senior Taylor Crosby rips a two-run double in the first inning.

Thornton Academy freshman Olivia Paradis steals second base as Portland senior Morgan Boyle takes the throw too late.

Portland junior leftfielder Sydney Gilbert runs down a fly ball. Gilbert caught the game’s final out.

Previous Portland stories

Season Preview

Portland 8 Sanford 1

Portland 12 MGA/Falmouth 8

Portland 4 South Portland 0

Portland 14 Deering 2 (5)

Portland 8 Biddeford 4

Portland 9 Gorham 1

Windham 1 Portland 0

Previous Portland-TA playoff result

2000 Western A quarterfinal
Portland 5 TA 0

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Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.