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Indians turn back Panthers’ challenge, 2-0

TURNERS FALLS — Turners Falls High School came in with everything to prove. Pioneer Valley Regional School played like a team with nothing to lose.

The second-seeded Indians eventually wore down their Franklin County League rival by scoring a pair of unearned runs in the fifth inning, and freshman pitcher Mackenzie Phillips provided a major spark in relief to eliminate the No. 7 seed Panthers, 2-0, in the quarterfinals of the Western Massachusetts Division III Softball Tournament on a pleasant Saturday evening at the Bourdeau Fields Complex.

Turners (19-2) advanced to the semifinals Thursday at 5 against either No. 3 Granby High School or No. 6 Putnam Vocational High School, who play their quarterfinal today at 4 p.m. in Granby.

Many in attendance on the home side may have been surprised by the close score — Turners won 10-3 and 12-3 during the regular season — but Turners head coach Gary Mullins wasn’t.

“I told you third games were crazy,” the Hall-of-Fame mentor said. “People don’t believe me, but our kids felt more pressure than I’ve seen in a long time. You could see it in their faces.”

Indeed. Save for Jenna Putala’s leadoff single in the first and Mackenzie Salls’ leadoff base hit in the second, the Indians’ offense — which averaged 10.1 hits per game during the regular season — struggled to mount any sort of offense against Panther starter Shea Healy. Though far from overpowering, Healy was efficient and consistent throughout, and her fielders made most of the plays behind her. Pioneer (11-11) made an error in each of the first two innings, but kept the game scoreless and even turned a double play in the opening frame after the first miscue.

In the fifth, however, the Panthers made their third mistake and Turners was finally able to take advantage.

Healy retired the first two hitters, and ninth hitter Jordan Meattey to hit a routine grounder to shortstop Katlyn Grover, whose throw sailed high and got past first baseman Erin Bertrand, allowing the fleet-footed Meattey to race to second.

Putala immediately singled through the left side to score Meattey with the Indians’ first run. Putala advanced to second on the throw, then senior Dakota Smith-Porter came up and lined a single to right that plated Putala (2-for-3, RBI, run).

Pioneer would not go away, and the Panthers’ patience at the plate may have created an interesting situation in the Powertown.

Smith-Porter walked Jackie LaFleur and Mary Luckham to lead off the sixth. After Chianne Hubert sacrificed the runners over, Smith-Porter issued her sixth free pass of the game to Grover to load the bases. Mullins then signaled for Phillips, and Smith-Porter replaced Breanna Breault at third.

Phillips — who was 5-0 with a 0.65 earned-run average, 59 strikeouts and just eight walks in six appearances — immediately fanned Bertrand, then got Tara O’Neil on a grounder to second to get out of the jam.

The energy created by Phillips was evident, as the crowd roared with approval after each of the final two outs.

Phillips followed that up by striking out the first two hitters in the seventh, but Healy walked on five pitches and LaFleur lined a single to right field. Healy tried to advance to third, but senior Brittany York fired a bullet to Smith-Porter and she tagged out Healy to end it.

“Brittany has a super arm,” said Mullins. “There’s not a better arm in this league, and a lot of leagues. That was a huge out to end it.”

Smith-Porter, who struck out four in the first 5 1-3 innings, got the win. Phillips had three Ks and one walk on 25 pitches (16 strikes) over the final 1 2-3 to earn the save. Healy fanned four, walked two and allowed four hits over six innings in her final career start.

Mullins was impressed with the Panthers’ effort.

“(Pioneer) played very well,” he said. “They came in very confident. They certainly were not afraid of us. They made that one mistake that hurt them, but I give Joel (Panther head coach Joel Cole) and his crew lots of kudos with the way they played.”

Mullins said he will take some time before Thursday to decide who he’ll start in the circle. Phillips did her best to make it a difficult decision.

“It’s still up in the air,” offered Mullins. “Mac’s throwing well, and she’s certainly a consideration. We also have TJ (Tanisha Sanders) to throw.”

As for Phillips’ performance, Mullins said, “She came in and was awesome. I think she had some courage, and I think she’s ready to pitch. .... I thought Dakota was in trouble and I wanted to help her out. I thought it was the right thing to do.”

Notes: The win was Turners’ 80th in the postseason under Mullins. ... Smith-Porter extended her postseason hitting streak to 11 games. ... Turners also turned a double play in the fourth when Smith-Porter snagged Grover’s line drive and doubled Luckham off first. ... Pioneer stranded nine runners on base, including six in the final three innings. ... Softball Tournament Director Gary Stacy and Greg LeDuc were the umpires.

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