Both the Portland and South Portland softball teams found plenty to be encouraged about in their season-opening showdown Saturday.
The Red Riots, one of the top contenders in recent years, hosted a Bulldogs team looking to return to glory. South Portland would give new coach Ralph Aceto his first victory, but it didn’t come easily. While senior pitcher Lauren Tuttle was superb, her teammates couldn’t produce any offense until an a risk on the basepaths in the bottom of the sixth inning led to an unearned run. Tuttle slammed the door in the seventh and the Red Riots spoiled Dee Regan’s first game as Portland’s new coach, 1-0.
“Lauren held them at bay,” Aceto said. “I can’t say enough about her. As a senior captain, I don’t think she expected this in her first game. She did an excellent job as did all the girls. If we play defense, we can play with anybody. It was flawless today.”
South Portland is coming off a 14-5 campaign, which ended with a 1-0 loss to Scarborough in the semifinals. Since 2005, the Red Riots have been a semifinalist or better each year. While South Portland has been hit hard by graduation, Aceto inherited a squad that is still capable of being very formidable.
Portland, meanwhile, went 8-9 last spring, losing 4-0 to Deering in the preliminary round. Regan, the program’s all-time winningest pitcher, took over a team that might be better than expected.
The Red Riots won the previous four meetings, dating to a 10-5 Bulldogs win May 28, 2005.
South Portland would keep the streak going Saturday, but it wasn’t easy.
Tuttle mowed down the top of the Portland order in the top of the first, fanning two hitters. The Red Riots had their first threat in the bottom half when sophomore rightfielder Danielle DiBiase led off with a single to center and was sacrificed to second, but Bulldogs starter, senior Kaitlyn DeFillip, fanned sophomore centerfielder Alexis Bogdanovich and got junior shortstop Stephanie Thibeault to foul out.
Portland then had a great opportunity in the top of the second. Senior rightfielder Lauren Messer led off by drawing a walk and was wild pitched to second. First baseman Stephanie Rogers then singled to right, putting runners at first and third. Rogers promptly stole second to put two runners in scoring position, but Tuttle bore down, getting a pop out and two strikeouts.
South Portland threatened again in the second when sophomore catcher Kaitlin Norton singled up the middle and pinch-runner Emily Masters was sacrificed to second. Leftfielder Kaylee Swiger popped up, but first baseman Olivia Whitten drew a walk. Tuttle then had a chance to help herself, but struck out and the game remained scoreless.
In the top of the third, Tuttle returned to form and set the side down in order. Then, in the bottom half, DeFillip had her lone 1-2-3 inning, highlighted by a gorgeous catch by senior shortstop Jess Martin on DiBiase’s rocket.
The Bulldogs made noise in the fourth. With one out, Messer singled up the middle. Rogers did the same to put runners at first and second, but junior second baseman Maddie Crockett lined out to center and DeFillip fanned to end the threat. In the bottom half, Thibeault led off with an infield single. Norton grounded into a force play, but Masters, again pinch-running, swiped second. That would be as far as she’d advance, however, as sophomore third baseman Amanda Linscott popped out and Swiger struck out.
Portland catcher Hannah Higgins led off the fifth with an infield single, but was promptly caught stealing on a strong throw from Norton. Tuttle set the next two batters down without further trouble. Whitten led off the bottom half by sending a fly ball to the outfield that was misplayed. Whitten tried to take second, but was thrown out, ending another potential threat.
With one out in the top of the sixth, Martin sent a blast to the wall in left-center and legged out a triple, but again Tuttle escaped, getting Messer to hit back to the mound before Rogers’ apparent single to right turned into a 9-3 putout thanks to the heads-up play of DiBiase.
Finally, in the bottom of the sixth, South Portland got on the board. The rally began innocently when senior second baseman Melissa Thomes beat out a wormburner in front of the plate. She stole second, then Aceto rolled the dice. Bogdanovich bunted and was out pitcher to first, but Thomes didn’t stop, sprinted for the plate and scored on a throwing error to make it 1-0.
“We hit the ball hard all game, but we hit it right at people,” Aceto said. “The book says the leadoff man gets on, you bunt them over. We did that twice. I said I was going to throw the book away and do something a little more active to score the run. Luckily I had a senior at second base. She knew better than to look for a stop sign.”
All that was left was for Tuttle to slam the door. In the seventh, Crockett bounced out to second, DeFillip popped out to short and Higgins hit a liner to center that appeared ticketed for a hit, but Bogdanovich raced in and made a shoestring catch to end it.
“We had some chances,” Regan lamented. “We just didn’t get a big hit when we needed it. For a first game, I’m really happy with the kids. We made some awesome defensive plays. South Portland’s a good team. We kept ourselves in it. I’m proud of them.
“It’s definitely encouraging. We put the bat on the ball. We got on base. We did the things we needed to do. We just needed the big hit. I’m really happy with our pitching and defense today. We have some positive things we’re going to run with.”
Aceto was impressed by the Bulldogs.
“I’ve known Dee for many years,” he said. “I knew they’d be ready. I know they’re missing some starters. They have a good ballclub. They come to play.”
Tuttle excelled in her first pitching appearance since 2007, allowing just five hits with a walk and a wild pitch in seven shutout innings. She struck out five.
“It’s really exciting,” Tuttle said. “I didn’t pitch at all last year. Just two games my sophomore year. I was a little nervous at first, but I was confident through the game. I knew the run would come. I was confident in my team. I think we’re going to have a good season.”
DeFillip was solid as well, giving up just the one unearned run on six hits and a walk in six innings. She fanned three.
Norton, Rogers and Thibeault had multiple hits. Martin had the lone extra base hit.
Portland will seek its first victory Monday when it hosts Cheverus. South Portland returns to action Wednesday at Cheverus.
In a play symbolic of their contest, South Portland junior first baseman Olivia Whitton took a throw just in time to force Portland’s Becca Smith during the host Red Riots’ 1-0 season-opening victory Saturday. (Jason Veilleux photo)
Portland catcher Hannah Higgins was tagged out on this steal attempt by South Portland junior shortstop Stephanie Thibeault in the fifth inning Saturday. (Jason Veilleux photo)
South Portland senior hurler Lauren Tuttle threw a five-hit shutout to lead her team to its first victory. (Jason Veilleux photo)