POULTNEY — In Monday’s tense, well-played softball final at the Poultney Recreation Park between the two teams that had proven themselves to be Division II’s best, No. 5 Otter Valley scored the go-ahead run in the top of the seventh to edge No. 2 Vergennes, 2-1, and claim the program’s second title in five years and fourth overall.
The Otters finished the season at 15-5 after senior shortstop Cortney Poljacik singled home senior pitcher Taylor Aines with the winning run. They completed a tournament run that included convincing victories at No. 4 Mount Abraham and No. 1 Lyndon.
Poljacik described the emotions.
“It’s overwhelming and just the greatest feeling I’ve had and I’m sure the team’s had,” she said. “Because we just this whole season have just been playing together and working at it, every practice, just keeping it cool, smiling and laughing, and we stayed calm and did what we needed to do, and I’m beyond proud of my team, beyond proud.”
The Commodores finished at 17-3, losing only to D-I powers Essex and St. Albans before Monday and defeating D-I finalist Missisquoi in the regular season and undefeated two-time defending champion BFA-Fairfax in a semifinal.
They had earned their second straight berth in a D-II final, and Coach Mike Sullivan’s program — sparked by senior pitching aces Dani Brown, Taylor Paquette and Emilee Trudo — compiled a 46-13 record in the past three years while playing a mostly D-I schedule.
“It’s been a hell of a ride for them, there’s no doubt about it. They’ve won more games, probably than any team in Vergennes history,” Sullivan said. “They’ve beaten a lot of good teams.”
But it was clear early on Monday it would not be easy for VUHS to get past the Otters’ defense and their ace, Aines, who tossed a two-hitter, struck out eight and walked three.
The game’s defensive star, senior third baseman Brittany Bushey — who handled five chances cleanly, including three outstanding plays — in the first inning robbed Trudo of a bunt hit and backhanded Paquette’s foul line drive.
Still, VUHS took the lead in the second. Brown led off with an infield hit, and courtesy runner Jaymee Fulcher stole second. K.C. Ambrose bunted, and Aines threw wildly to first, allowing Fulcher to score easily. Catcher Laura Beth Roberts threw out Ambrose stealing to end the threat.
But between the second and sixth innings, Aines used her fastball and changeup well and allowed just three baserunners. She walked VUHS rightfielder Sarah Poirier-Thayer leading off the fourth, and leftfielder Kayla Charron sacrificed her to second with two out, but Aines snuffed the rally with a strikeout.
In the fifth, VUHS senior centerfielder Phoebe Plank singled and catcher Felicia Armell walked with two out. Aines induced a ground ball back to the mound for the third out.
VERGENNES UNION HIGH SCHOOL sophomore Jaymee Fulcher Beats the tag at second by Otter Valley's Cortney Poljacik during Monday's Division II championship game in Poultney. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
OV coach Pattie Candon said it has been critical for OV’s success that Aines, a three-year starter for OV, has taken a step forward on the mound this season by refusing to get rattled by mistakes like her throwing error or leadoff walks.
“The mental aspect of her game this year has just grown tremendously,” Candon said. “She’s stayed within herself.”
Aines agreed she has matured on the mound.
“The bad throw and a couple walks they had could have snowballed,” Aines said. “But once it happens, it happens, and you’ve got to set it aside.”
Meanwhile, Brown (four hits, six Ks, no walks) was just as effective, especially early on. Through three innings, she allowed just a single to OV centerfielder Olivia Bloomer.
But the Otters broke through in the fourth, when second baseman Amy Jones laced a leadoff triple to left field. With one out, cleanup hitter Megan Santell drove a line drive to right field, where Poirier-Thayer made a fine over-the-shoulder catch. But Jones tagged up and easily scored the tying run.
Brown retired the next seven batters in a row, but the heart of the OV order again gave her trouble in the seventh. Aines, the No. 3 hitter, led off by grounding a single between short and third, and Santell bunted her to second.
VUHS, which played errorless ball for the second straight game (third baseman Tamara Aunchman made a fine play on a Bushey bunt, and Paquette handled four chances cleanly), then made its only defensive mistake. Aines rounded second and headed to third, and Ambrose, covering first on the bunt, threw to third and had Aines easily. Aines stopped and went back to second, but no Commodore had covered the bag, and the chance to erase the baserunner was lost.
The Commodores elected to pitch to Poljacik, who lined the RBI single up the middle on a 2-0 fastball, and OV led, 2-1. VUHS then turned a beautiful double play, but the damage was done.
“That rundown potential, where she was able to get back to second, was huge,” said Candon. “And Cortney Poljacik, all season long, that was her 39th RBI.”
Poljacik said she thought about her teammates as she approached the big at-bat.
“I needed to do it for my team, because they’ve been behind me the whole game and the whole season,” Poljacik said. “I just wanted to make everyone happy, including myself, but mostly my team. They were supporting me the whole way through. The previous at-bats weren’t so great, but they told me to keep my head up.”
VUHS did not go quietly in the seventh. Plank walked with two outs, and Sullivan sent the speedy Fulcher in to pinch-run. Fulcher stole second, and the throw glanced off the tip of Poljacik’s glove just far enough to allow Fulcher to reach third.
But Aines prevailed in a battle with Poirier-Thayer, who fouled off a pair of tough two-strike pitches before popping to Jones at second base to trigger the Otters’ celebration.
Sullivan praised the high level of play in the game and both pitchers.
“It was a hell of a game, definitely,” Sullivan said. “There was some very good pitching tonight.”
The Otters’ win capped their comeback from an 0-2 start of the season. As late as May 2, they were just 4-3. Aines, finally winning a title in her 10th varsity season (her cousin, Bushey, did so in her 11th varsity campaign) said they just kept plugging and stuck together.
“We never really got down on ourselves,” Aines said. “If it didn’t happen as we hoped one game, the next game and in practice before we worked on it and fixed those things.”
That teamwork paid off on Monday.
“Oh my gosh, everyone was playing well,” Aines said. “It was just a wicked team effort, and I couldn’t have asked to play for a better team my senior year of softball.”
MEMBERS OF THE Otter Valley Union High School softball team share hugs and smiles after beating Vergennes, 2-1, in Monday’s Division II state title game. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Meanwhile, Sullivan believes the Commodore seniors have established a legacy.
“These girls have accomplished a lot, and they will have nothing to hang their heads about. It’s been a couple great years with these kids, and I don’t want to say it’s the end of an era,” he said. “I want to say I hope it’s the beginning of something special at Vergennes, kids finally learning what softball is all about and what it takes to win.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]