Tiger softball advances in playoffs

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Union High School softball team, seeded No. 3 in the Division I playoffs, didn’t really bring its hitting shoes to its first-round game against No. 14 Champlain Valley on Tuesday, but the Tigers still had enough to take care of the Redhawks, 9-1.
The Tigers will next host No. 6 Brattleboro (13-4) in a game scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on Friday.
On Tuesday, the 15-2 Tigers did manage 10 hits and four walks against the soft serves of CVU hurler Hattie Roberts, but pulled a lot of balls foul, hit a lot of shots right at fielders, and stranded 10 runners.
Meanwhile, the 3-14 Redhawks were making surprisingly good contact against junior Tiger hurler Payton Buxton, knocking out seven hits and earning three walks against a pitcher who has been virtually untouchable, with three shutouts and a no-hitter since May 10.
But the outcome really never seemed in doubt, especially after the Tigers scored four runs in the first inning, and then Buxton kept working out of jams, stranding two baserunners in each of the first four innings. 
“They timed her up a little bit, and got some base hits. But our defense was good, and we did what we needed to do,” said MUHS Coach Polly Rheaume.
Tiger senior catcher Hannah Lawrence (who reached base three times and scored twice) explained, at least in part, the team’s struggles with Roberts — at least until the sixth, when three consecutive two-out hits from Darcy Staats, Bridget Audet and Abby LaRock plated four insurance runs and made it 9-1.
“She’s very slow. We really like the medium fast (pitching),” Lawrence said. “It took us a little bit, but we got it.”
Senior second baseman MaKayla Foster and Lawrence started the Tigers’ first-inning rally with one-out singles. With runners on first and third, Lawrence took off for second, and Foster stole home on a close play even though the first throw went to the shortstop. With two outs, Buxton reached on an outfield error, scoring Lawrence. Staats blooped a double to plate Buxton, and Audet singled Staats in to make it 4-0.
The Redhawks kept threatening. In the second, two runners reached on an error and a walk, but Buxton (11 Ks) struck out the side. In the third, Buxton worked around a leadoff single, a one-out single and a sacrifice bunt by getting the next hitter to ground out to Staats at third base. In the fourth, a single and catcher’s interference put two runners on, but Buxton knocked down a liner up the middle and got the out at first.
The Tigers added a run in the fourth. Center fielder Ally Larocque singled, but two fielder’s choices left Foster on first base with two out. Foster stole second and then scored on an error to make it 5-1.
CVU scored in the fifth. Natalie Gagnon singled, stole second and third, and scored on a Paige Niarchos single. An error and a walk loaded the bases, but Buxton struck out the next two hitters to kill the threat.
Roberts singled for the second time and with one out reached third on a miscue and a groundout in the CVU sixth. But she did not score when Larocque made a sensational over-the-shoulder catch of a ball Gagnon launched that would have one-hopped the fence. No one, including the baserunner, thought it would be caught. (“That was crazy,” Lawrence said.) Buxton struck out the next batter to strand Roberts.
Then the Tigers put the game away in the bottom of the inning. Shortstop Lily Smith walked, Lawrence reached on an error, and senior first baseman Sondra Laroche walked. With two outs, MUHS finally started getting clutch hits: Staats singled in the first run, Audet doubled home two more, and LaRock ripped a single to make it 9-1.
Buxton then tossed her first 1-2-3 inning to seal the win, snaring a screaming liner for the first out and striking out the final two batters.
Lawrence, who has been catching Buxton for three years, said the pitcher’s success this year has been the product of dedication.
“She works really hard. She works every weekend,” Lawrence said. “She’s been working with people. She’s warming up every practice.”
The team’s success can also be traced to an improved offense, Lawrence said: It’s no accident that big hits came in the sixth inning from the Nos. 6, 7 and 8 batters in the order.
“Everyone in the lineup can bat,” she said. “They all have their own potential.”
Both Rheaume and Lawrence also talked about the team’s togetherness.
“The team chemistry is great. You can’t ask for a better group,” Rheaume said.
Lawrence said that chemistry has made for an enjoyable spring.
“This year is really fun,” She said. “I’m really happy my senior year we can all come together and have a good year.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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