PROVIDENCE – In two previous regular-season meetings with Division II-West champion North Providence High, league runner-up St. Raphael Academy suffered losses of 5-0 at Notte Park and 1-0 at the Hank Soar Complex.
SRA skipper Ron Labree and assistant Kevin Shea discussed the nuances of those defeats on the team bus, one carrying the Saints to one final showdown against the mighty Cougars in the R.I. Division II Tournament championship game, on Saturday morning.
“Kevin and I talked about the fact we hadn't scored on them; that's why I told the girls we had to jump on them quick, gain some momentum,” Labree stated. “I thought we did a great job of that, but … ”
He really couldn't finish, and for good reason: First, officials were about to start the awards ceremony, and – second – after the Saints snatched a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, top-ranked North Providence took advantage of senior tri-captain Hannah Dionne's two-run single in the back half.
That's all it needed to snare a 3-1 triumph before approximately 300 vociferous fans at the Rhode Island College diamond.
Had the Saints prevailed, they would have forced a winner-take-all contest on Sunday. They didn't, and that allowed head coach Janice DiNobile, assistant Mike Tuorto and their kids to celebrate N.P.'s first state crown since 2001, not to mention a superb 22-1 overall record.
Mere seconds after the Cougars mobbed senior starter Lindsey Cabral in the circle, that after retiring freshman backstop Haley Mitsmenn with the final out in the seventh, Labree was greeted by a couple of fans outside his first-base dugout and gave both hand slaps. He then raised his arms as if to say, “What can you do?
“We did jump on them fast, and we hit the ball off them right away, but then they scored two in the first; after that, it became a chess match,” Labree noted. “We had our chances, but we didn't get it done in the end. We couldn't come up with the big hits when we needed them.”
In all, SRA stranded eight baserunners, including six in scoring position. N.P. left seven on base, but only four on second and/or third.
“I know we left six; we did that in the second game, too,” Labree stated of their last clash at the Hank Soar field a few weeks ago. “I told the girls after, 'Hey, we outhit them. We just couldn't get the key ones when we needed them.'
“We're just proud of our girls,” he added. “That's a young team we have in there, with six sophomores and freshmen and one junior (starting). You also have to be proud of the seniors who hung in there (after manufacturing just one win in 33 tries their first two seasons).
“Hopefully, these underclassmen will come back hungry; they got a little taste of this kind of success here.”
The right Cabral yielded eight hits and a walk while fanning a pair, while sophomore Kaylee Sylvestre allowed seven hits and five walks while whiffing another five. The latter just came up short.
“Lindsey's just a phenomenal athlete,” DiNobile offered after her captains accepted not only the D-II state title plaque but also the one representing the II-West championship. “She's always very well-prepared mentally, and she's fundamentally sound.
“This is our first (state) championship in 12 years, but the 10th overall,” she continued. “It's extremely satisfying. We came into the season knowing we were very young, but the girls rallied together. We hope this will continue to a great run for the North Providence Cougars.”
Just as the coaching staff had wanted, the Saints started a flurry right away; in fact, they had a 1-0 lead just three batters after the opening pitch.
Leadoff batter Sylvestre roped an opposite-field single to right, moved to second on freshman Kamryn Labree's sacrifice bunt and scored when Mitsmenn drilled a hit up the middle.
Mitsmenn actually took second on the throw to the plate, but moved no further as Cabral struck out junior clean-up hitter Hayley Microulis and forced sophomore Alexis Vieira to foul out to right.
The Cougars didn't take long to respond; senior tri-captain Kelsey Vargas opened the bottom half with a hit to left, and Cabral beat out a bunt single. Sophomore Kelsey Burgess popped out to the circle, and classmate Tateana Marulanda moved them up with a sacrifice bunt.
Dionne immediately pounded a two-run single up the middle, plating both Vargas and Cabral for the 2-1 advantage.
Actually, junior Mia Scampoli poked a hit to the same spot, though Sylvestre got out of the frame on sophomore Michaela DeAngelis' fly to right.
It looked as if SRA would answer back in the second. Senior Arianna Haddock started the frame with a soft liner to center, but was out on senior Lauren Sequin's fielder's choice. Freshman Lauren Taylor's solid, opposite-field hit to right advanced her to second, and Sylvestre's single loaded the bases.
The younger Labree then drove a shot down the left-field line, though junior Katherine DeCorte's outstanding running grab on the foul line closed the frame.
N.P. seemed poised to add to its cushion in the bottom of the third when Burgess drew a one-out walk, and Marulanda did the same. Dionne then ripped a hard grounder just to the left of second base, and – with shortstop Microulis falling – the probable single hit Burgess hustling to third. The first-base umpire immediately called Burgess out, and asked Marulanda to return to second.
Sylvestre responded to the gift, whiffing Scampoli with the last out.
In the fourth, Sequin walked and moved to second on Taylor's “swinging-bunt” out, and the Saints left her there. As for the fifth, Sylvestre started it with a groundball infield hit, and Labree followed with a bloop hit toward third, one shortstop Burgess dropped.
Still, third baseman Dionne picked up the error and fired to second to get Sylvestre. Mitsmenn's sacrifice bunt advanced Labree to the middle bag, though Microulis grounded out.
In the back half of the fifth, Sylvestre looked to be in control, fanning Vargas and getting Cabral to ground to short, but Burgess singled to left and Marulanda walked. Dionne then knocked a grounder at the pitcher, one she couldn't control, and the miscue juiced the bags.
Scampoli earned N.P.'s final run with a walk, Burgess trotting home.
The Saints (22-4 overall) had a prime opportunity to slice the deficit to one after Sequin crushed a two-out double to the left-center gap; Cabral, however, forced Taylor to ground to third to end it.
They also kept it a two-run game in the sixth, despite leadoff- and pinch-hitter Shavena Armstrong's two-bagger to deep center.
In the seventh, Sylvestre (4-for-4) beat out an infield hit to short, but was thrown out at second on Labree's fielder's choice. With the tying run at the plate, Mitsmenn's slow roller in front of the plate was fielded by Marulanda, who threw to first.
That's when the Cougars raced to Cabral in the circle, where a massive celebration ensued.
And why not? DiNobile and Co. had just captured their 15th straight victory after dropping an early-season tilt to Moses Brown.
“Like I said, Kevin and I told the girls we wanted to score on them right away and keep them on edge,” the elder Labree stated. “That last game we lost, it was only 1-0, and I told them, 'If we take the lead, even with one, maybe we can win.' When we scored that first one, Kevin and I looked at each other and laughed, 'Finally!'
“But I knew they were going to score; they're too good a hitting team,” he added. “It was a great game, and we played well, but, hey, somebody's got to lose … I will say it was good to see two teams out of the West (Division) get here to the final.”
Explained Mitsmenn: “I thought we should've won, obviously, but it didn't work out that way. I think we're a really young team, and that we can get back here. Before last year, when we finished 8-8 (regular-season, 8-9 overall), we had only won one game out of 33, so just getting here was an accomplishment.
“I don't think anyone's really that sad. We know we came this close, and we have a lot of kids returning. We really want to get back here and finish it.”