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Knocking on history’s door

  • Turners Falls' Taylor Murphy has not looked like an eighth-grader this season. Murphy has helped solidify second base and has come up with a number of big hits for Turners during its current postseason run. Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Turners Falls’ Olivia Whittier takes a cut against Hopedale in Tuesday’s Division III state semifinal at Sortino Field in Amherst. Could she wind up being the hero in today’s championship game in Worcester where Turners is looking to make history with its ninth state title? Recorder Staff/Matt Burkhartt

  • Above, Turners Falls’ Aly Murphy is one of the bats to keep an eye today when the Powertown tries for a record-breaking ninth state softball championship against Austin Prep at Rockwood Field in Worcester at 3:30. Below, Taylor Murphy has not looked like an eighth-grader this season, as she has helped solidify second base and come up with a number of big hits for Turners during its current postseason run. Recorder file photo/Matt Burkhartt

  • Aly Murphy (right, tagging out Hopedale’s Rowena Murphy) and the Turners Falls softball team will try for their ninth state title today at 3:30 at Rockwood Field on the campus of Worcester State University. Below, freshman Olivia Whittier has come up with some timely hits this season. Could she wind up the hero today? Recorder file photo/Matt Burkhartt

Recorder Staff
Published: 6/16/2017 11:07:55 PM

History is on the line in Worcester this afternoon for the Turners Falls High School softball team.

The Powertown will attempt to capture a record-breaking ninth MIAA state championship when it plays for the Division III title in a rematch of last year’s title game against North champion Austin Preparatory School of Reading (23-2). First pitch is set for 3:30 p.m. at Rockwood Field on the campus of Worcester State University.

Turners (22-2) won last year’s meeting, 2-0, to capture its eighth state championship all-time. That tied the program with Bishop Fenwick High School of Peabody for the most softball titles in Massachusetts history (the Crusaders won eight consecutive Division I titles from 1990-97).

The road to Worcester

Turners enters after a wild, come-from-behind, victory over Hopedale High School in the Div. III state semifinals on Tuesday. The Powertown trailed 1-0 in the sixth inning before scoring two runs on back-to-back, two-out errors. Somehow, Turners escaped UMass’ Sortino Field with a 2-1 win that sent it into today’s state final.

“They were certainly disappointed with how they played against Hopedale,” admitted Turners coach Gary Mullins of his team. “They’re happy they have a chance to prove they’re better than the way they played the other day.”

The team waltzed through the Western Mass. Div. III Tournament, waxing McCann Technical School, Greenfield High School and Mt. Everett Regional School by a combined 32-2 margin in its three wins, which secured a 13th sectional title in the last 14 years.

Austin Prep entered the North sectional tourney as the No. 2 seed in the field behind top-seeded Boston Latin Academy. The Cougars also made easy work of their march toward a title, earning wins over Matignon, Brighton, Saint Mary’s and Boston Latin by a combined 43-0 score. Austin Prep did not allow a run in its postseason run until the Div. III state semifinals, when West Bridgewater scored a pair of late runs to cut the final deficit to 8-2.

“They’re pretty much the same team back; they were very young last year,” Mullins offered of Austin Prep. “They play in a very good league and they get to be the home team, in the third-base dugout. I think they’re very confident they’re going to win. Hopefully we can come out and play well.”

Last year’s title tilt

In last year’s state title game, the only offense all afternoon came in the third inning.  

Turners scored both of its runs in the bottom of the third inning. Aly Murphy reached on an error in the frame, while senior second baseman Jenna Putala made the Cougars pay for the miscue. Her double plated Murphy for a 1-0 lead, and she eventually scored on another error off a ball hit by Gabby Arzauga.

The 2-0 cushion was plenty for Turners star pitcher Mackenzie Phillips. The senior tossed a two-hit, shutout with 13 strikeouts and no walks in her final game in blue and white. Phillips retired 12 of the final 13 batters she faced and struck out the final two swinging for the state title.

“What it comes down to is those small things are usually the difference in the game,” said Mullins. “You look at the unfortunate situation for Hopedale (in the semifinals). That stuff can happen. To win a state title is a very difficult thing to do.”

Austin Prep sophomore pitcher Logan MacDonald nearly matched Phillips in the circle last spring. MacDonald fired a one-hitter, striking out 12 and walking just one.

Pitching matchup

Speaking of MacDonald, the now-junior pitcher has once again posted a monster season in the circle. She threw a perfect game in a quarterfinal win over Brighton, and has allowed just the two runs in the state semifinals during the Cougars postseason run.

“I think she has most of the pitches she needs to be successful,” lauded Mullins of MacDonald. “She’s around the plate, will work hitters and is not just a thrower. She’s a pitcher in every sense of the word. If you show weakness, she’ll go after it.”

While MacDonald has the experience factor in her advantage having pitched in last year’s state final, Turners Falls junior Peyton Emery hasn’t looked the part of a postseason rookie this season. The right-hander shook off a run in the top of the first inning against Hopedale, shutting the team down the rest of the way while allowing the Turners bats a chance to wake up.

Unlike Phillips last year, Emery isn’t an overpowering pitcher, but she’s used her pinpoint accuracy and strategic placement to her advantage in shutting down teams during the stretch run. She went to the curveball late in the game against Hopedale, using it effectively to keep hitters off-balance.

“Peyton’s a kid, who unlike Mack, isn’t striking out 13 to 14 a game,” said Mullins. “Her team needs to help her defensively. Sometimes, with a kid like that, your defense is more prepared to make plays because they aren’t waiting around all day. They’re right in the action. Her job is very simple — make sure they only get part of the ball and not the whole thing.  

“She’s done a terrific job, no question about it,” he continued of Emery. “I don’t think many people thought after losing Mack, we’d be back playing in the last game of the year. She’s earned her stripes this year.”

The good news for both pitchers is they also have excellent catchers behind the plate. Arzuaga is as steady as they come for Turners, and she’s not only solid defensively but a top bat in the middle of the order as well as a vocal leader on and off the field.

Austin Prep’s Caroline Sablone is also one of her team’s top performers both behind the plate and at the dish, as she drove in key runs throughout the Cougars postseason run.

Offensive squads

At the plate, both teams have enjoyed successes during the postseason. The Turners offense is loaded with firepower at the top of the lineup, paced by Arzuaga, Aly Murphy and Jordyn Fiske. Eighth-grader Taylor Murphy has come up big after finding a home at second base, and she certainly hasn’t looked the part of a postseason rookie.

“Our strength this year has been our discipline at the plate,” Mullins stated. “We’ve done a good job at only swinging at strikes.”

Austin Prep freshman Lauren Sablone has been a huge bat in the lineup for the North champs, as she clubbed a home run in the team’s sectional-title game victory over Boston Latin. Fellow freshman Francesca Frelick is another hitter to watch, as is junior shortstop Kendra Currier.

“She’s fantastic,” said Mullins of Lauren Sablone. “She’s a big, young hitter who is going to be a tough out.”

What’s at stake

After winning back-to-back state titles thanks to wins over Austin Prep in 2016 and Millis High School in 2015, Turners stands tied with Bishop Fenwick as winners of eight state championships. Today’s game will be the program’s 15th finals appearance and fourth in a row — Turners lost the 2014 final to Greater New Bedford. All-time, the Powertown stands with an 8-6 record in state title games, though it’s won five of its last six. As a Div. III program, Turners is 6-4 in state finals. The school went 2-2 in Div. II finals, winning the 2004 and 2005 championships.

Conversely, Austin Prep’s championship game showing a year ago was its first finals appearance.

“Most of their kids have been there as well, so that’s a throw-out,” said Mullins of the experience factor. “There’s no plus or minus there, in my opinion. Sometimes these games come down to your No. 7 hitter. More often than not, we’ve gotten there and Sam Caouette hits a triple (in the 2011 state final win over Case) for us or something like that happens. I can go back to many situations where kids you’d be surprised at got a big hit for us.

“We all want our stars to perform well,” he continued. “Gabby, Aly, Jordyn Fiske, they’ve all been there for us this year. But sometimes, it has to be somebody else who steps up. You never know who the star will be. This game is very fragile. The best team doesn’t always win. But we’ll take our best effort and our pride and go out there and try and win a softball game.”

The game is the second in a tripleheader of MIAA title tilts in Worcester today. Dracut High School and Grafton High School open things up with the Div. II championship game at 1, while Milford and Wachusett tangle in the nightcap at 6.

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