Tiger softball keeps rolling, tops VUHS

MIDDLEBURY — The good times continued early this week for the Middlebury Union High School softball team, which topped visiting Vergennes on Tuesday, 19-1, for the Tigers’ fourth straight win and fifth in six outings.
The surge has pushed the Tigers’ record to 6-4 after a slow start that included losses against the first-place teams in Division I and II, Essex and Mount Abraham, respectively, and defending D-I champion Mount Anthony, which is undefeated in Vermont. Their only loss since those opening games came against 8-2 Missisquoi, which slipped by the Tiger, 6-5, on a miscue in the bottom of the seventh.
Tiger Coach Polly Rheaume said the streak has coincided with the team’s understanding they can compete even without four-year starting pitcher Payton Buxton, the 2017 Vermont Gatorade Player of the Year, who graduated a year ago. Senior Bridget Audet, junior Abby LaRock and sophomore Gwen Stafford have taken turns on the mound for MUHS this spring.
“We didn’t have Payton come back this year, and I think they were all, ‘I don’t think we can do it.’ But I think they’re finally realizing (they can). We had a great game against Missisquoi,” Rheaume said. “I think they finally decided, hey, we can compete with the top teams.”
She said the Tigers are playing better in all aspects, even considering an early hiccup in the field during their Monday 18-8 home win vs. Milton.
“We’re finally getting the bats on the ball like we know we can,” Rheaume said. “Our defense has been good, other than we had a rough start with Milton.”
Meanwhile, Coach Mike Martin’s 0-9 Commodores also lost their pitcher, Maranda Aunchman, but to injuries suffered in an offseason car accident. Freshmen Ema Gernander and Jordan Norris have gamely volunteered to lob the ball across the plate, but teams cannot compete in fast-pitch softball without a hurler.
“That’s our struggle, and we knew that coming in,” Martin said. “We’ve corrected it a bit. There aren’t so many walks. But that’s our weakness right now. If we had a pitcher we’d be a lot better. But we’ll keep working on it.”
Although Stafford held VUHS to two hits and two walks and struck out eight in five innings on Tuesday, the Commodores also made solid contact on many outs and also made good plays, notably by senior shortstop Megan Tarte, who ended the Tigers’ 15-run third inning by nailing Carly Larocque trying to stretch a double into a triple; junior second baseman Cheyenne Jewett; and junior catcher Sam Rathbun.
“All year we’ve been getting the bat on the ball. Defensively we’re starting to get a little better. They make the plays that are there,” Martin said.  
VERGENNES UNION HIGH School freshman Ema Gernander pitches against Middlebury Tuesday afternoon.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
VUHS took a lead in the first inning. Eighth-grader Aubrey Tembreull doubled and moved to third on a wild pitch. Rathbun walked and stole second to add to the threat. Tembreull scored on a close play on VUHS junior Sydney Tarte’s ground out, beating Tiger junior first baseman Ashley Sunderland’s throw to the plate by dancing around the tag.
The Commodores only had two more baserunners as Stafford threw well and the Tigers played sound defense: Senior right fielder Emily Jackson walked in the second, Norris walked in the fourth, and Darcy Tarte singled in the fifth.
MUHS took the lead on the bottom of the first inning. Stafford led off by lining an inside-the-park homer to right. Larocque then singled, moved up on a wild pitch and ground ball, and scored on a two-out error.
In the third Gernander, who started, and Norris, who relieved mid-frame, combined to walk nine batters and allow five hits while the Commodores made errors. The result was a 17-1 Tiger lead.
Abby LaRock singled and Audet stroked a ground-rule double to start the festivities; junior catcher Katelyn Stearns, Sunderland and Stafford poked RBI singles; Sunderland and senior DH Hailey Quenneville (twice) picked up RBIs on ground balls; LaRock, Audet and Stearns drove in runs with bases-loaded walks; and Larocque capped the inning with a bases-loaded double.
In the fourth the Tigers tacked on two more runs. LaRock doubled and moved up on a wild pitch. After Audet walked, junior shortstop Taylor Sylvester scored LaRock with a ground ball that forced Audet at second base. Sylvester came around to score on two passed balls and a double steal; it was her third run of the game after walking twice in the third.
On Monday the Tigers topped visiting Milton, 18-8, after overcoming defensive lapses that led to an early 4-0 deficit. LaRock earned the pitching win, allowing six hits and a walk, and also knocked out three hits. Stafford tripled, doubled, and singled twice, and Larocque doubled and singled twice.
Rheaume said the Tigers are pointed in the right direction as the season enters the home stretch.
MIDDLEBURY UNION HIGH School sophomore Gwen Stafford allowed just two hits and one run while striking out eight Commodores Tuesday afternoon.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“I think everything will finally come together. Hopefully it’s getting there, and when playoffs come around we’re ready for everybody,” she said.
Martin said despite the frustration of one-sided setbacks, the Commodores understand they are making progress.
“Their heads are in it,” he said. “They’re young, ninth-graders a lot of them, so you’ve got to make sure their focus is good. But their spirits are up, and they come to play.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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