LINCOLN — There had been a fair share of dominant Division I teams during the past decade that ruled their regular seasons and captured state championships, but none of them were able to accomplish what Lincoln wrapped up on Monday afternoon.
The Lions became the first team since 1999 to produce a perfect regular season by posting a hard-fought 7-3 triumph over Division I-North foe Mount St. Charles before a large Memorial Day gathering at Saylesville Elementary School’s Sullivan Field. A four-run rally in the bottom of the third inning and the stellar five-hit pitching of junior ace Lindsay Mayer were the key ingredients to the Lions’ magical 18th victory of the season.
The last team to head into the playoffs with a ‘0’ in the loss column was St. Raphael Academy, which was also 18-0 in ’99 and went on to claim the third of four straight state championships. In the 12 seasons after that year, seven teams came close to perfection, but ended their respective campaigns with one loss.
“It’s nice to make a little piece of history,” said Lincoln coach Dick Ryan, “but this was a tough game, a really, really tough game. Mount’s a good team that has a lot of good athletes, and that’s a team that kind of worries me going down the road. We were in a tough game with them today and that’s what we need heading into the playoffs. A lot of our games this year have been too easy, so we needed a game like this.”
The Lions, who had outscored their opposition by a 141-15 margin this season and won seven of their games by 10 or more runs, appeared to be headed for another lopsided victory after their third-inning uprising gave them a 5-0 lead.
But the Mounties came back with three runs in the top of the fourth, two coming home on a two-run homer to straightaway center field by Olivia Hendricks, and the score remained a two-run affair until Lincoln tacked on a pair of insurance runs in the sixth that allowed them to breathe a little easier.
“We had one bad inning,” added Matthews, whose crew was two days removed from a very agonizing 7-6 defeat to Smithfield that saw the Sentinels erase a 6-0 deficit with seven runs in the home half of the sixth. “It was the same thing against Smithfield. but I think we gave Lincoln a pretty good game. I give (MSC pitcher) Kristen Rodrigues a lot of credit. She knew this was going to be a tough game, but she battled out there. And of course, Taylor (Messier) came through for us.”
Messier, MSC’s center fielder, turned in two superb defensive plays by twice reaching over the fence in straightaway center to rob Emily Bouthillette, the Lions’ dangerous clean-up hitter, of home runs.
With one out, Mayer on first, and the Lions holding a 1-0 lead and threatening for another run or two, Bouthillette lined a shot to deep center, but Messier raced back to the fence, and with her back against it, raised her arm and hauled in the blast right in front of a couple of fans.
And four innings later, Messier found a way to top that catch. With two gone and no one aboard, Bouthillette belted a blast in almost the same area, but a little deeper. Messier again dashed toward the fence until she ran out of room, and at the last second, she jumped up and snared the shot over a handful of fans who looked to grab the ball.
“That obviously kept us in the game,” added Matthews. “On a field without a fence, that’s a routine catch for her, but to be able to time her leap, with a lot of fans standing out there, and make that catch, that was outstanding.”
The Lions scored their run in the first when Emma Hart lined a double to left-center field and scored on a base hit up the middle by Mayer, and in the third, a ground single to left by Bouthillette and a line double to right-center by Stacey Mayer set the tables for a RBI single to center by Alyssa Schermerhorn, run-scoring safety squeeze bunts by Meredith Walsh and Sarah Albanese, and another run-producing bunt by Casie Beauchemin that she legged out for a base hit.
After Hendricks got the Mounties on the board with her home run, the visitors threatened for more in the fourth by loading the bases with two gone on singles by Briana Castro and Rodrigues and a walk to Emily Georgeu.
Mayer struck out the next batter she faced, and after she walked Messier to force in a run, she got the next batter to softly pop out to first baseman McKenzie Cavanaugh to end the threat.
And after that inning, Mayer was lights out on the mound. She mowed down nine of the final 10 batters she faced and struck out the side in order in the final frame. She ended her splendid outing with 11 strikeouts and four walks.
The Lions, who scored their final two runs in the sixth on a wild pitch and an infield error, ended their afternoon with 10 hits, three coming on perfectly-placed bunt singles by Beauchemin, the Lions’ No. 9 batter.
The 12-team Division I tournament is set to begin on Thursday, with the fifth through 12th seeds playing a single-elimination playoff game on Thursday and the top four seeds -- Lincoln, Division I-South champion North Kingstown, Division I-Central champ Bay View, and Coventry (11-7) -- earning a bye into Friday’s double-elimination format.
The Mounties, who finish their regular season with a 10-8 mark, are expected to be the eighth seed and host Chariho on Thursday, with that winner tangling with the top-seeded Lions on Friday.
“The new season starts tomorrow,” added Ryan. “I just reminded everyone that we have to start working hard to get ready for the playoffs. (The playoffs) are going to be tough, but we’re looking forward to it.”