Phillips delivers perfect title
TurnersFalls pitcher Mackenzie Phillips launches her final pitch, right, to complete a perfect game against Pathfinder in the WMass Division III Softball Championship at UMass' Sortino Field Saturday, after going airborne, below, in an intimidating windmill windup.Her Indians won, 7-0. Recorder/J. Anthony Roberts
AMHERST — Mackenzie Phillips needed just 77 pitches to achieve perfection — and make history at the same time.
Phillips, Turners Falls High School’s prized sophomore pitcher, hurled the area’s first-ever perfect game in a Western Massachusetts softball championship game and only the second known perfect game in the postseason locally as the Indians defeated Pathfinder Vocational High School, 7-0, in the Division III final on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon at Sortino Field.
Turners (22-2) moves on to the state semifinals at Worcester State University’s Rockwood Field Tuesday at 3 p.m., to face defending state champion Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School (21-3) of Marlborough.
It was the Indians’ 16th WMass title under veteran Hall of Fame head coach Gary Mullins, and their 11th crown in 23 seasons in D-III since 1985, when the tourney first expanded to three divisions.
Although Phillips said she was aware that she was throwing a perfect game during the 88-minute contest, it still hadn’t sunk in afterward.
“It’s kind of hard to process right now, because I haven’t played in a tournament like this before,” said Phillips. “But it’s pretty cool. I knew (about the perfect game), but I didn’t think about it too much.”
Megan Black of Pioneer Valley Regional School fired a mercy rule-shortened, five-inning perfect game, also against Pathfinder, as a freshman in the 2002 Division III quarterfinals.
Indians senior catcher Morgan Ozdarski — who caught Dakota Smith-Porter’s one-hit gem in the 2012 state final — tried to stay focused for her batterymate.
“I wasn’t even thinking about it,” said Ozdarski. “If I’m thinking about it, it goes away. You don’t say anything, and it’s a perfect game.”
Ozdarski and her teammates weren’t going to jinx anything on this day. Phillips looked focused and determined from the outset, when she caught leadoff hitter Stephanie Hastie looking at a called third strike to open the contest. She fanned every batter in the Pioneers’ order at least once (four of them both times she faced them), and struck out the side in both the second and sixth innings during her masterpiece. She threw 63 of her 77 pitches for strikes (82 percent).
“Mackenzie stepped up big-time,” said Ozdarski. “She has big shoes to fill, and she hasn’t disappointed. Being a senior, I can’t wait to come back and see how good she is.”
From the moment Turners ran onto the diamond to the sounds of DaRude’s “Sandstorm,” their regular warm-up music during infield practice, the Pioneers appeared to look a little in awe of their opponents. They also appeared nervous, and defensively they played that way from the very first batter, committing three errors in the opening frame and six in all.
Pathfinder pitcher Jenna Maska did everything she could to help keep the Pioneers in the game. The senior lefthander struck out 10, walked three and allowed only five hits in her six innings. But the Pioneers’ defensive struggles and Turners’ aggressiveness on the bases were too much to overcome.
“Their pitcher did a great job, and she carries an awful lot of weight for them,” said Mullins. “We felt if we can keep their top hitters off the bases and not let Maska hit, they don’t score a lot of runs.”
Ozdarski led off with a grounder to first, but Marissa Riley misplayed it and Ozdarski reached. Courtesy runner Maddy Johnson was erased on Jenna Putala’s fielder’s choice, then Amber Caouette (2-for-3, two runs) laced an RBI triple to the gap in right-center and she eventually scored on a bad relay throw from the outfield to make it 2-0 early.
Maska settled in and retired seven of the next eight batters she faced, but the Indians tacked on three runs in the fourth to extend their lead to 5-0.
Phillips (2-for-3) led off with a double, Mackenzie Salls singled to short right-center field to move courtesy runner Nicole Thibeault to third, and Emma Johnson walked to load the bases. After Maska fanned Jordyn Fiske for the first out, Hailey Whipple then grounded a ball to second that brought home Thibeault, but Samantha Marty’s throw sailed low and wide of catcher Nicky Manarite, allowing Salls to come around from second with Turners’ fourth run. Ozdarski then plated Emma Johnson on a grounder to third.
Turners added its final two runs in the seventh. Caouette led off with a single, stole second and advanced to third on a passed ball. Gabby Arzuaga worked a walk and promptly stole second, then after Maska got Phillips swinging for the first out, Caouette scored and Arzuaga went to third on a wild pitch during Salls’ at-bat. After Salls walked, she immediately ran halfway to second, trying to distract Maska and give Arzuaga a chance to try and score. Maska looked Arzuaga back to third, but Salls broke for second and forced Maska to rush her throw, which was low and got away from Marty, giving Arzuaga plenty of time to score the Indians’ final run.
“We didn’t think they could throw us out, and we took some chances early,” said Mullins. “The odds were with us, so we stayed with it.”
Knowing Phillips had things well under control, Mullins started to empty his bench and substituted liberally over the last 11/2 innings. He also brought in sophomore Jordan Meattey to bat for Whipple in the bottom of the sixth, to the delight of the Indian faithful and her teammates, who all came out of the dugout to give her a standing ovation. Meattey had just been medically cleared to play on Thursday after recovering from a serious left knee injury she suffered in the fall.
Mullins enjoyed the team’s celebration from a distance, knowing they accomplished what he felt all along.
“I thought we had the best softball team, but it doesn’t mean a thing until you prove it. I think with this long run, we’ve proved that we were the best team in the tournament,” he said. “This crew has gotten better and better as the season has gone on, so we’re pretty happy with how they’ve been playing now. ... I thought the best team won, and Mac just put the cherry on top.”
As for his squad in general, Mullins added, “It’s been a great team this year. They all get along and they have a lot of fun. They’ve worked very hard, they’ve put in a lot of time, and it’s nice to see them rewarded for it.”