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Mt. Abe prevails in D-II softball showdown with OV

CASTLETON — Something had to give in Friday’s Division II softball final at Castleton University.
Top-seeded two-time defending champion Mount Abraham Union High School entered on a roll, having thumped No. 9 Randolph and No. 5 Fair Haven in a quarterfinal and semifinal after a first-round bye.
Meanwhile No. 2 Otter Valley brought a kind of magic with them throughout the Division II playoffs — comeback magic. The Otters were down in the late going in every game they played this postseason before rallying to win.
In the opening round of the playoffs, OV trailed No. 15 Vergennes, 16-14, going into the seventh inning before winning, 17-16, in extra innings. In the quarterfinal, the Otters fell behind, 2-0, to No. 10 Rice before scoring six runs in the sixth inning for a 6-2 win. In the semifinals, No. 6 U-32 took a 10-3 lead in the fourth before the Otters somehow fought back to prevail, 11-10.
THE ENTIRE TEAM mobs Erica Tracey (#16) after she crosses the plate on her out-of-the-park homer in the 5th inning. Photo by Buzz Kuhns
But this time it was the Eagles who conjured late-inning lightning in what proved to be a 9-1 win in the program’s fourth straight D-II title game appearance.
The Eagles led in the fifth, but just by 2-1, when Mount Abe coach Don McCormick pulled a rabbit out of his hat.
After senior Jess Murray drew a walk, McCormick called for freshmen Cami Willsey to pinch-hit for senior Molly Murray.
“That was the game plan coming in,” McCormick said. “If we got a runner on base and we needed a big at-bat we were going to put her in.”
And a big at-bat is what Willsey delivered. She stepped up to the plate and drilled the first pitch she saw to the gap in right-center for an RBI double. And the next batter, senior pitcher Ruby Ball, singled up the middle to set the table for cleanup hitter Erika Tracey.
Tracey waited for a pitch she liked and when she got it, she got all of it, smoking a line drive over the left field wall for a three-run homer and a 6-1 Eagle lead.
“I saw the ball and I knew I had to keep my weight back and wait on it,” Tracey said. “And it worked.”
After the homer, junior Addy Harris singled and stole second, and senior Sam Rathbun doubled Harris home. The Eagles added two more in the sixth with a two-out rally: Jess Murray singled, Molly Murray doubled, and Ball singled them both in.
MOUNT ABE’S SAM Rathbun hit a solid double, but tried to turn it into a triple and got tagged by Otter Valley’s Mia Politano trying to get back to second base. Photo by Buzz Kuhns
 
The Eagles graduated five key starters from the 2018 championship, but many of the Eagles who played major roles this season — including the Murray twins, Molly at shortstop and Jess in left field; junior Addy Harris in center; Ball on the mound; and junior catcher Abby Hoff — saw time a year ago.
“We try to use our young players as much as we can,” McCormick said. “It makes them much better when they have that experience behind them, and we’ve been blessed to be able to make deep playoff runs for four straight years, and it’s paid off.”
The Otters had defeated the Eagles during the regular season, 4-1, in large part due to junior Morgan LaPorte’s off-speed pitching. LaPorte doesn’t throw hard, but she throws strikes and kept the Eagles off balance for the first four innings by generating lots of soft contact.
“We’ve been working on adjusting to her in practice,” McCormick said. “We’ve tried to get the girls to generate their own power in their swing so they can hit her and not just pop it up.”
The Eagles took a 1-0 lead in the first on a Molly Murray single and a Ball triple. In the second Hoff walked, and pinchrunner Karissa Livingston eventually scored on sophomore Camilienne Masse’s sacrifice fly.
Junior Livia Bernhardt scored the OV run in the fourth; she singled, stole second, and came around on two wild pitches. But that was all Ball would allow the Otters, and an inning later the Eagles broke the game open.
OV didn’t bring its comeback magic to Castleton, but co-coach Kelly Trayah said the Otters were still winners.
“There’s probably not many people who expected us to be here,” he said. “Just getting to this game, to me, is a win.”
His coaching partner, Toni Poalino, agreed.
“To accomplish what these girls have accomplished this year is incredible,” Poalino said.
The Otters have plenty of reasons to hold their heads high and look to the future — there are no seniors on an OV team that reached the D-II final.
“We’re planning to be back next year,” Trayah said. “We played well, we had good defense, the outfield tracked the balls well. There were just a couple of bloop hits that led to runs, and Erika really got ahold of one.”
And he’s right. With the exception of the Willsey double and the Tracey home-run, the only other hard-hit shot was the triple Ball banged off the fence in the first. 
But the Otters could not get anything going against the hard-throwing Ball, who was backed by errorless defense.
“She’s a seasoned senior, she has good control and she hits her spots,” Trayah said. “You have to shorten up your swings because she has great velocity.”
THE EAGLES GIVE the “Three-peat” sign for their third consecutive State Championship title. Photo by Buzz Kuhns
Ball was on top of her game Friday. The Otters only managed four hits against her and seven of their nine batters struck out at least once. Ball allowed just four hits and two walks, while striking out nine.
The Eagles graduate seven seniors, second baseman Shealyn Layn as well as the Murray twins, Tracey, Ball, Rathbun and reserve first baseman Cora Funke.
But like this year McCormick believes he has another group of young players ready to step up and continue their winning ways, and for now he praised OV and said the Eagles are just going to enjoy this victory.
“It feels great, really great,” he said. “Kelly (Trayah) used to coach at Mt. Abe and I’m really happy with the way his team came in this year. This division is much better when OV is at that level.”

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