PROVIDENCE --- They split their regular-season series by winning lopsided games on their home fields. They battled to a 1-0 duel in the winners’ bracket semifinals, and they shared some Division I championship history by playing a one-sided game that was decided by a dozen runs.
On Tuesday night, Cumberland High and Mount St. Charles Academy battled each other in a winner-take-all showdown for the ages, a nine-inning duel that saw the Clippers emerge with their program’s first state title.
Becky Geddes’ sacrifice fly to center field in the top of the ninth inning turned out to be the difference in the Clippers’ 3-2 triumph over the Mounties before a large gathering at Rhode Island College.
The Clippers, who were the fourth seed in the tournament, cap a magical 19-5 season that saw them become the first team since Bay View Academy in 2007 to fight its way out of the losers’ bracket and claim the championship.
The crown was also their first after failing in its previous four appearances in the championship round (1998, 2000, ’01, and ’09).
“It’s a great win for the Cumberland program and for all the players who had been here before us, but never won (a championship),” said Cumberland coach Marty Crowley. “And I can’t say enough about my team coming out of the losers’ bracket. The kids definitely deserve this. I’m very proud of them, and I can’t say enough about them.”
Crowley offered praise in his post-game remarks to his talented senior class of tri-captains Bethany Paul, Christina Speroni, and Krissy Peffer and fellow veteran 12th-graders Kayleigh Martins, Kaitlyn Pluta, and Kelsey Cahill.
This group, which won a middle school and JV state championship earlier in their careers, turned in some of their best performances during the playoffs to end their run together as varsity champions.
“Our seniors really stepped up this year,” noted Crowley. “We talked a long time ago about our senior leadership. We met all winter long and they really stepped up. Our seniors have done everything I have asked them to do, and we’re here because of them.”
While Crowley and the Clippers were obviously ecstatic with their state title, the ninth-seeded Mounties (13-10) were obviously a downcast bunch in their failed bid to win their first championship in four tries and become the lowest-seeded team in RIIL history to capture the crown.
“It’s a tough way to end the year, but there are 13 other teams who would do anything to stand where I am right now,” added MSC coach Cliff Matthews, whose crew also lost in last season’s finals to Coventry High. “We came from three games under .500 to make it here, and I just couldn’t be any prouder of my team.”
Matthews’ team was a night removed from playing its worst game of the year in an very ugly 15-3 loss by the Clippers, who pounded out 20 hits and took advantage of six errors by the Mounties. But in Tuesday night’s rematch, the Mounties did a complete turn for the better and played superbly.
“We came back out here tonight and it was like, ‘OK, we remember how to play now. We‘re focused,’ ” said Matthews. “In my heart, I think that (MSC pitcher) Olivia (Hendricks) outpitched (Cumberland pitcher) Beth (Paul). I know we outhit them, and defensively, we were rock-solid.
“But when we were in position a few times to win the game, we couldn’t get that one key hit, and that was the difference in the game.”
Before the contest, Crowley had the option of being the home team, but to the surprise of a lot of people, he decided to be the visiting team for the second night in a row. Why did he do this?
“People questioned why we wanted to be the visitors, and this is why,” said Crowley. “If we got to extra innings, we would have the opportunity to score first and put pressure on the other team. We got some funny looks for doing it, but it paid off in the long run.”
It paid off in the ninth. Juliet Nelson began the inning as a courtesy runner for Speroni. She dashed to third two pitches later on a sacrifice bunt by Pluta and sped home on Geddes’ long sacrifice fly to the gap in right-center that center fielder Taylor Messier reeled in with a nice running grab.
In the bottom of the frame, Olivia Hendricks, who was the runner on second, found herself quickly on third with no outs on a passed ball. But Paul left her on third and ended the game by getting the next three outs on a soft pop fly to shortstop, a strikeout, and a tapper back to the mound.
In the top of the eighth, the Clippers began the inning with the last out from the seventh, Bridget Connors, on second base.
Peffer laced a grounder to shortstop that Emily Hendricks fielded and fired to first baseman Nicole Grinsell, but Grinsell, seeing Connors break late for third, stepped off the base prematurely and delivered a late throw to third that had no chance of nabbing the speedy Connors.
But Peffer, who tried to advance to second base, was throw out, and Olivia Hendricks, who limited the Clippers to six hits, came back to retire the next two batters on a popout to shallow center and a groundout to shortstop.
Then came the Mounties’ half of the inning. Emily DiCecco was inserted at second base as a courtesy runner for the last out of the seventh, Aria DiMeo.
With one out, Nicole Silva blooped a single to shallow center, but DiCecco, who got a late break away from second, tried to advance to third, but she was thrown out by 10 feet by Connors in center field.
The Mounties struck first in their opening swings, when with two outs, Briana Castro, who went 3-for-4, blooped a single into center and scored all the way from first on a long double to right by DiMeo.
But the Clippers, after being handcuffed to two hits through the five innings by Hendricks, came alive in their half of the sixth.
Peffer led off with a sharp base hit to right, and after Paul flew out to shallow center, Speroni tied the score with a ringing double into the left-field corner.
While the Clippers and their fans were still celebrating Speroni’s hit, Pluta gave them the lead with a single up the middle. Messier scooped up the ball and made a strong throw to the plate, but Speroni was able to slide home safely.
After the Clippers struck for their two runs in the sixth, the Mounties made a final effort to get back on the board in the seventh. Gardella led off by getting on base on an infield error, and with two outs, dashed to second on a passed ball.
Emily Hendricks then smashed a sharp single to left, but seeing how the ball was hit hard to Martins in left field, Matthews gave Gardella the stop sign at third.
After Hendricks alertly took second on the throw back into the infield, Castro stepped to the plate and ripped a grounder to second that Speroni gloved with a dive to her right, but couldn’t throw out Castro at first. Gardella scored and Hendricks, who would have scored if the hit went into the outfield, only went to third.
“That was the play of the game,” said Crowley. “Christina dove to keep that ball in the infield, and if she doesn’t do that, Mount wins the game. We knew they would battle back, but that play didn‘t allow the winning run to score.”
Paul then silenced the threat and sent the contest into extra innings by striking out DiMeo with a high fastball.
Cumberland 000 002 001--3-6-1
Mount St. Charles 100 000 100--2-10-1
Bethany Paul and Krissy Peffer; Olivia Hendricks and Alyssa Lanzi. 2B -- Aria DiMeo (MSC), Kayleigh Martins (C), Taylor Messier (MSC), Christina Speroni (C).