By John Orrell, Contributing Writer
Worcester — It takes months of hard work, sacrifice and dedication, but the reality is that it can all end within a blink of an eye. The sudden jolt is often overwhelming, especially for high school seniors who are suddenly faced with an ending for which many may not be prepared.
The Grafton High varsity softball team learned such a lesson June 12 by coming up on the short end of a 2-1 decision versus third-seed Auburn High in a matchup for the Division 2 District title played at Worcester’s Rockwood Field. The top-seed Indians had been victorious in 21 of 22 contests prior to facing the Rockets and the expectation of a championship was very real so that when the final out was recorded, it was almost a sense of disbelief to Grafton players, coaches and team supporters.
And for good reason. The Indians had captured a pair of Division 2 state championships (2012, 2013), advanced to another (2014) and earned a spot in the Central Mass. finals (2015). During that period, Grafton has run off 89 victories while losing just six times. Expectations of high marks have been met with results heading into this 2016 campaign and the team seemed to match well with the day’s opposition.
“All of our games were one-run games against Auburn this season, (1-0 and 2-1 wins),” said John Gemme, who has established himself as one the area’s most successful and respected head coaches. “Any of them could have gone either way. We had opportunities today. We put a lot of people on second and third base and we just couldn’t get that big hit that would have made a difference.”
Grafton’s toughest obstacle on the day was the fiery pitching of Auburn’s Julia Handfield who, despite allowing just a pair of hits while striking out a dozen batters, found herself in jams throughout. Her only run allowed was unearned and came in the fourth inning when third baseman Lindsey Sawtelle manufactured a run all on her own. It came on an infield hit, stolen base and a pair of Rocket errors. Her run evened things at one-apiece.
“She (Handfield) did a great job pitching. She kept the ball down low and on the outside corner of the plate,” explained Gemme. “Today we only got one solid hit against her and a couple of bunts. She struck out a lot more batters than she had against us in the past. You have to give her credit. Today she established herself as a pitcher hitting the outside corner of the plate. She did a great job.”
Auburn’s winning run came in the seventh and final inning when sophomore pinch-runner Jennifer Tarini raced home from second base on an infield hit. Grafton threatened to even the score in their half of the seventh but could not push the run across the plate.
Grafton starting pitcher sophomore Savannah Small was sharp going the distance allowing two runs while fanning seven. She was also strong battling out of trouble at times to keep this one from breaking open.
“Savannah did a great job today,” Gemme said. “That will definitely bolster a lot of confidence in her going into the next couple of years here. She’s now been in the big games and her confidence will improve.”
For the Grafton players, it was the sudden finality to a remarkable season that seemed to hit the hardest. Few words could fully console but Gemme was there to steady things as much as possible.
“I told the kids to keep their heads up and stay proud. At the beginning of the year, we weren’t sure where we were going to be. We didn’t know if we’d swing the bats well enough. We knew we had a lot to do and we ended up having a good year. This game could have gone either way but I’m really proud of these kids.”
Members of the 2016 Division 2 championship finalists are seniors Kendall Leofanti, Olivia DeFreitas, Shelbe Turpin and Lindsey Sawtelle. Juniors include Erin Cardoza, Bella Thornton, Elizabeth Sudbey and Carolina King, who are joined by sophomores Shannon Mortimer, Savannah Small, Jessica Evans, Jessica Hamilton, Sofia Coleman and Anna Bertrand. DeFreitas, Turpin and Sawtelle are team captains.