PROVIDENCE --- Less than a month ago, reaching the winners’ bracket final of the Division I playoffs was the last thing on the minds of Mount St. Charles Academy and head coach Cliff Matthews.
Not only did the Mounties endure a tough stretch that saw them drop five out of seven contests and fall three games below .500, but also did they lose two of their top players, pitcher Olivia Hendricks and third baseman Nicole Silva, for an extended period of time to an injury and an illness.
But the team came back to finish the regular season at 9-9 and claim the ninth seed in the playoffs. And when Hendricks and Silva returned to the lineup, the Mounties took off, toppling two-time defending champ Coventry High in their playoff opener and stunning top-seeded Lincoln High in their next game.
The Mounties continued their marvelous run on Wednesday at Rhode Island College by picking up another impressive postseason victory in their winners’ bracket semifinal-round duel against fourth-seeded Cumberland High.
Emily Hendricks’ two-out RBI double in the top of the seventh inning scored Taylor Messier with the run that helped the Mounties eke out a 1-0 win over the Clippers and spoil a fabulous outing by Cumberland ace pitcher Bethany Paul.
“When you beat someone like Cumberland, and when you beat someone like Lincoln, you have to play perfect softball, and our last two games have been just about perfect games,” said Matthews. “And that’s what it takes to win at this level.
“We’ve been on a roll and the kids are starting to believe in themselves. I tell them every day before we leave the school, ‘We can play with anybody if we play perfect.’ That’s what it takes, and so far, we’ve been doing that.”
The Mounties’ reward for their perfection is a spot in Wednesday’s 7:30 p.m. winners’ bracket final against third-seeded Division I-Central champ Cranston West High, which nipped seventh-seeded North Kingstown High, 3-2, in their semifinal-rounder on Sunday.
The Mounties (12-9) suffered a 3-1 loss to the Falcons (15-5) in their April 29 crossover meeting at Mount -- a game that saw the Falcons score twice in the top of the eighth inning -- and Matthews is expecting another tight battle with his opponent.
“We had a doozy of a game with them and I expect it’s going to be the same thing on Wednesday,” he said. “They’re nice people, it’s a good program, and we know them well. It’s going to be a very good game.”
While Matthews hopes his Mounties turns in another perfect showing against the Falcons, the Clippers endured one imperfect moment that set the stage for Hendricks’ game-winning hit.
With two outs and no one base in the seventh, Messier was able to reach first when her grounder was misplayed for the game’s lone error. Hendricks then ripped a 1-0 pitch from Paul over the head of center fielder Bridget Connors for her timely double.
While that error proved to be a costly one for the Clippers, head coach Marty Crowley explained the real reason why his team dropped into this afternoon’s losers’ bracket semifinals.
“We didn’t hit, and you’re not going to win any games without scoring runs,” he added. “We lost as a team. One play didn’t determine the game. We hit the ball well, but we hit it right at people and (Mount) made the plays.”
It was a difficult defeat for the Clippers (15-5) to swallow, but what made it bitter was the sparkling showing turned in by Paul that resulted in a tough-luck loss. Paul struck out 10 batters, walked one, and scattered seven hits, but only a few that were hard hit.
“She was awesome,” added Crowley. “With Beth, we’re in every single game no matter what, and if we get out of the (seventh), things might have changed, who knows.”
The Mounties, meanwhile, went with two pitchers, ace Olivia Hendricks and freshman Kristen Rodrigues, who pitched admirably during the regular season in Hendricks’ absence. Both hurlers teamed up on a six-hitter that included no walks.
Hendricks, who missed a significant amount of time with a foot ailment, was still 80 percent when she took the mound. She worked the first two innings, and after Rodrigues spelled her in the next two, Hendricks came back out for the fifth and retired the Clippers’ final nine batters in order.
“They did a great job,” said Matthews. “Olivia pitched well and Kristen gave us two good innings and didn’t give up anything. And if we went to the eighth inning, it was going to be Kristen again. I have full confidence in her.”
Silva, meanwhile, missed a good chunk of May battling mononucleosis, and like Hendricks, wasn’t at 100 percent on Wednesday. But she was still good enough to serve as the Mounties’ designated hitter and went 0-for-3 with two loud outs to right field.
“Nikki’s getting stronger every day,” admitted Matthews. “She drove the ball today, but right at people. I think Nikki with a bat at 80 percent is better than many players at 100 percent.”
Before the decisive seventh, the Clippers had the game’s best two chances to break on the board, and they nearly produced their first run in the third, when with two gone, Connors laced a base hit to right, stole second base, and tried to score on a sharp single to center by Krissy Peffer.
But Messier, who was playing center field, scooped up the hit on one bounce and fired a bullet to the plate to cut down Connors.
Cumberland also loaded the bases with two gone in the fourth, but Rodrigues got out of the jam by getting Kelsey Cahill to line out to third.
“I’m a little frustrated that we left some runners on (base), and I know Marty had to be frustrated to leave the bases loaded,” said Matthews. “If you don’t take advantage of opportunities like that, sometimes they don’t come around again.”
In the fifth, the center fielders from both teams turned in outstanding catches. Connors made a nice diving catch of a sinking liner by Nicole Grinsell to kick off the inning, and Messier reeled in a deep drive to the gap in left-center by Kayleigh Martins to start the bottom half of the frame.
“Taylor’s catch was the game,” added Matthews. “If that gets over her head, that’s three (bases) with no outs. That was an outstanding over-the-shoulder catch. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
While the Mounties will wait until Wednesday for their next test, the Clippers are back into the fire this afternoon with a 4 p.m. clash at Tucker Field against sixth-seeded Toll Gate High.
“It’s on to tomorrow,” admitted Crowley. “This game’s in the rearview mirror and we just have to come back and be ready to go. We’re playing a team that beat us 1-0 (on April 23 in Warwick) and they’re on a roll. We’ve been in this situation before and we’ll keep our heads up.”
The other losers’ bracket semifinal-round game pits North Kingstown against Lincoln today at 4 p.m. at the Saylesville Elementary School complex. The two losers’ bracket winners will then return to RIC on Wednesday for a 5:30 p.m. game and the right to play the loser of the MSC-Cranston West affair.
Mount St. Charles 000 000 1--1-7-0
Cumberland 000 000 0--0-6-1
Olivia Hendricks, Kristen Rodrigues (3), Olivia Hendricks (5) and Alyssa Lanzi; Bethany Paul and Krissy Peffer. 2B -- Emily Hendricks (MSC).