‘We’ve started scaring teams’ – How 21st-seeded Frontier softball crashed the Final Four

  • Frontier shortstop Hailey Hutkoski makes a jumping catch for an out against Franklin Tech earlier this season. Hutkoski and the 21st-seeded Redhawks will play No. 1 Greenfield in the MIAA Division 5 semifinals on Wednesday at Westfield State University. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 6/14/2022 2:42:44 PM
Modified: 6/14/2022 2:40:28 PM

SUNDERLAND – Frontier Regional removed the fence from its softball field while the Redhawks played their first playoff game. They were a 5-15, No. 21 seed facing No. 12 Tahanto on the road.

The powers that be assumed the season was over.

Frontier won that game 4-0 – a fun upset. Then the Redhawks mercy ruled No. 5 Mount Greylock 15-0 in the next round, a team that beat them twice handily during the regular season, to reach the MIAA Division 5 quarterfinals. Now we’re sizing glass slippers.

Frontier wasn’t finished.

The Redhawks handled county foe Franklin Tech, the No. 4 seed that also swept them during the regular season, to reach the state tournament’s Final Four.

Up next is the No. 1 seed, Greenfield, the Redhawks’ archrival and a team that’s beaten them handily twice already. Sound familiar?

They’ll meet at 3 p.m. Wednesday at Westfield State University for a spot in the state championship game.

“Being the underdogs, we know we have nothing to lose, but we know how far we’ve come,” Frontier sophomore Gabby Adams said. “We want to keep playing to prove people wrong.”

The Redhawks (8-15) are tied for the highest seed in the state to reach the Final Four across all spring sports and divisions. Only fellow No. 21 seed Uxbridge girls tennis carved a similar path to the semifinals. They’ve won five out of their last six games and four in a row, only dropping the Western Massachusetts Class D quarterfinal against Franklin Tech.

How did a team that started the season 2-12 and lost 11 games in a row survive to the state’s Final Four? Even for a blackjack 21, luck’s got nothing to do with it.

The Redhawks only have two seniors. They’ll still be a young team next year. Seventh grader Skyler Steele locks down a key defensive position along the infield. Frontier relies on freshman Ashley Taylor in the circle. She’s allowed one unearned run in the state tournament.

“Everybody has a spot to play,” Steele said. “Everyone fills a role that we need.”

The team won’t even have any seniors next year unless some current juniors hop on the bandwagon. That youth and inexperience showed during the season’s challenging stretch. Routine fly balls dropped in the outfield. Bases went improperly covered. At times it barely resembled varsity softball.

“We lost so many games so badly that we had to figure out how to have fun,” Frontier coach Garrett Deane said.

Frontier focused on winning innings rather than games. The Redhawks harped on playing for each other rather than themselves. Deane drilled down into the fundamentals. He administered a true or false test on the rules of softball early in the season. His players did not score well. He repeated simple drills until the movements became muscle memory.

The results didn’t show on the scoreboard. Deane tried to explain that Frontier was saddled with one of the division’s toughest schedules administered for a program in a different place before the COVID-19 pandemic and its lost season altered the team’s makeup. Strength of schedule is a hard concept to explain to distraught recently-turned teenagers ending every other game after five innings because of a mercy rule.

Then the first MIAA statewide rankings came out. Deane explained that all 79 teams in Division 5 were ranked. 

“Where do you think we are?” he asked his team.

78? 75? 

“Higher.”

60s? Did we make the 60s?

“Higher.”

Finally, he told them they were No. 28. That clicked some things into place. They weren’t that bad, they were just facing top shelf competition multiple times a week.

The first light poked through in a 3-2 win over Athol on May 7. The Redhawks lost a rough game against the Bears to open the season, so it marked progress. Back to back double-dight losses in the Berkshires tamped down the excitement and left Frontier 3-15.

The gold standard for softball in Franklin County – and small school softball in the state of late – Turners Falls, was next.

“Before the Turners game I remember us talking about having nothing to lose,” Taylor said. “Let’s put our all into it.”

Frontier didn’t play that game with a full deck. Deane tested positive for COVID and turned the reins over to assistant Larry Laclaire.

“You got this,” Deane told him.

Deane informed the team in a group text then received private messages from his two seniors Chloe Cutting and Makayla Santos that they weren’t feeling well, either. They tested positive for COVID, too. 

So, no seniors on senior night, head coach quarantined at home, a team the Redhawks hadn’t beaten in nearly a decade in town. Nothing to lose.

Deane followed the game on his phone though GameChanger, an app that tracks play by play for baseball and softball. The Redhawks led 2-0 after one inning and 3-0 after two. They FaceTimed him from the dugout vibrating with excitement.

The GameChanger feed stopped updating. Deputized assistant coaches in the dugout had lost service and changed phones, but Deane didn’t know that. He imagined an injury or another issue. The phone switch went through and the plays populated. Hit after hit lit up his phone catching up to live play, punctuated by a Steele grand slam.

“It was like we had hit the jackpot,” Deane said.

That game marked the beginning Frontier’s run of wins but it didn’t start there. The genesis is more of a slow burn, the stonecutter’s credo exemplified. The Redhawks pounded the rock the proverbial 99 times before that game. It cracked, but not because of a huge hit against the Thunder. The hours of repetition, practice and team building along the way broke the rock.

“After a rocky start, we realized we are playing for each other,” Adams said.

No one mopes after a strikeout. They cheer on their teammates at the fence. Allowing a baserunner isn’t a failure. The Redhawks take it in stride and try to turn a double play or sit down the next few batters.

“We came together at the perfect time,” Taylor said.

The Redhawks can still barely believe what’s happening. Pulling up to Mount Greylock for the Round of 16 felt like arriving at the College World Series. The Mounties were hosting three state tournament games that day at sparkling new facilities, the parking lot filled with baseball and lacrosse fans, too. Deane worried about the team’s energy after such a long bus ride that ended with slow speeds, a maze of turns and “are we there yet?”

The Redhawks exited the bus pumped and blasting music out of a waist-high speaker. As the teams lined up for introductions, Olivia Machon noticed something was missing. Despite the grand stage, no one had played the national anthem. She started singing the “Star Spangled Banner,” and her team joined in. The fans at the softball field stopped, stood and removed their caps. Soon those at the baseball and lacrosse fields followed suit as more joined the chorus. The Redhawks shocked the home field advantage away.

“They don’t know what we’re going to do,” sophomore Sophia Pinardi said.

We don’t know what we’re going to do,”Adams responded.

They have developed some superstitions, however. Sophomore Hailey Hutkoski hasn’t washed her uniform in four weeks. The Redhawks only wear their white pants. The Gatorade better be blue. Leave the eye black at home. Don’t forget the strawberry Twizzlers. No running before the game, and stretch on your own.

“We’ve started scaring teams,” Hutkoski said.

Their opponents should be afraid. They have everything to lose. Division 5’s top three seeds reached the semifinals (No. 1 Greenfield, No. 2 Turners Falls and No. 3 West Boylston) and then there’s Frontier – the party crashers. The Redhawks probably should have lost by now, but they believe they can beat anyone. Even if they don’t, no one expected them to go so far.

“At this point, there can’t be any disappointment,” freshman Delaney Fifield said.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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