NORTH SMITHFIELD --- When the R.I. Interscholastic League looked into realigning its three softball divisions during the offseason, there was plenty of talk of dropping North Smithfield to Division III -- and for good reason.
Over their past four seasons, the Lady Northmen had won just a dozen games and languished near the bottom of the Division II-North standings. Their 12-62 record over this span was the worst in the entire league, and a far cry from the 2005 team that went 17-3 and reached the Division II state finals.
But the RIIL decided to leave the Northmen where they were -- and it’s looks like that’s been the best move the league never made.
After three weeks of play, the Lady Northmen are surprisingly sitting atop the division with a 4-1 record and a half-game edge over Ponaganset (4-2), which they blasted by an 11-3 score back on April 12 at home.
And while their hot start has raised some eyebrows, so is the fact that they’ve been successful with a talented 14-player roster that contains one senior (first baseman Kasey Gesualdi) and one junior (center fielder Sidra Ethier) and has more than half of it filled with freshmen (eight).
“We’re very young,” N.S. coach Tom Bourgeois noted after his team suffered its first loss last Wednesday, a 3-0 setback to defending Division III champion Exeter/West Greenwich, “But these girls know the game a little bit better than what we’ve had in the past, so we’re not starting off at square one.
“As long as we keep playing hard and improving, we’re going to get stronger and stronger as the year goes on.”
So what’s been the keys to the Northmen’s early success? Bourgeois pointed out a couple of reasons.
It’s been said that pitching is fastpitch softball is 90 percent of the game, and if that’s true, then the Northmen are in extremely good hands in this category with their ninth-grade pitching staff of ace Jessica Tremblay, Karissa Carlton, and Allison Depari.
Tremblay currently sports a 4-0 record that has seen her strike out 44 batters and allow just 10 hits in 24 innings of work, and Carlton, who got the start in the loss to EWG, was also spectacular, striking out 15 and allowing no walks or earned runs in a two-hit gem.
“I think a lot of it, it comes to the pitching,” noted Bourgeois. “Pitching-wise, we’re pretty strong. In years past, we haven’t had the caliber of pitchers that we have right now.”
Another reason has been the Northmen’s potent lineup. It’s averaging close to 10 hits per game, and it’s not just one player doing the bulk of the damage.
Sophomore No. 3 batter and third baseman Megan Brodeur has driven in 10 runs and delivered clutch two-run doubles in the Northmen’s season-opening 4-3 victory over Burrillville and 4-0 shutout of Scituate last week.
Sophomore left fielder Jamie LaFazia has excelled as the Northmen’s leadoff batter, and freshman shortstop Angela Barber, who belted a grand slam homer in the win over Ponaganset, has been productive in the cleanup spot.
“Every game, somebody has come through,” said Bourgeois. “It’s hasn’t been the same girl. Everybody has played and everybody has contributed. They’ve come up with some big hits in our games against Ponaganset and Woonsocket [a 4-3 win over April 11]. It’s been a team effort.”
Defensively, the Northmen are also strong with freshman Angela Pasquarielli behind the plate, Gesualdi, sophomore second baseman Tara Larson, Brodeur, and Barber playing the infield, and LaFazia, Ethier, and freshman right fielder Katherine West roaming the outfield.
Sophomore outfielder Samantha Archambault and freshmen Stephanie Gomes and Rachael Manzi have also been solid as well.
Unfortunately for the Northmen, they had one awful inning in the field in their defeat to the Scarlet Knights, as four errors in the top of the sixth led to three unearned runs and N.S.’s first loss of the year.
“I keep stressing that we have a young team and I think you saw it in that one inning.” said Bourgeois. “What a great performance by Karissa. Our defense let her down, but she really did a great job.”
Nevertheless, that was just a hiccup in what has been a fantastic start for the Northmen, a start that they hope helps catapult them to their first playoff berth since 2006.
“Our goal from the beginning was to get to the playoffs,” admitted Bourgeois. “It’s something this team hasn’t done in a while. I knew we had a young team coming into the season, so I figured if we can get (to the playoffs) with mostly ninth graders and sophomores, we can just build on that going forward.”