MILFORD, Mass. -- King Philip made the decision to walk Milford clean-up hitter Caroline Fairbanks in the bottom of the ninth inning of a scoreless game, which loaded the bases for senior Rachel Levine. It was a situation that Levine has become accustomed to with the powerful third baseman batting ahead of her.
This time, she made the Warriors pay.
Levine lined a 3-2 changeup into left-center to bring home the lone run in Tuesday afternoon’s Division 1 South showdown between the two division winners in the Hockomock League. Milford’s 1-0 victory advances the defending state champions to the sectional semifinal.
Levine was not surprised that the Warriors made the decision to bypass Fairbanks and pitch to her.
“They do that a lot to get away from Banks [Fairbanks] because she’s a phenomenal hitter,” said Levine following her game-ending at-bat. “It just gets me more psyched up. It didn’t hit me until I crossed first base and I was like that’s the game. ”
She added, “I knew she was coming with that change-up and we practiced the outside pitches that are slower, like all practice yesterday, so I was ready.”
With one out in the bottom of the ninth, senior Lauren Hanna bunted for a base hit. Senior pitcher Shannon Smith followed with a single to left off of KP starter Anna O’Neill, who had retired 11 in a row prior to Hanna reaching. The next pitch bounced away from catcher Jordan Shaffer opening up first base and Warriors head coach Norm Beauchemin decided to give Fairbanks the free pass.
Milford head coach Brian Macchi noted that Levine is a player he has come to count on, but that this was the biggest moment in her four years.
“She’s come up big for us in the past but that right there is the biggest hit of her career by far,” said Macchi. “Being a senior and it being her last game on this field … that’s going to be a memory that sticks with her forever.”
There was a huge crowd lining the field at Milford High knowing that this was a matchup of not only the top two teams in the Hockomock League but also the programs responsible for the last three D1 state titles. The game did not disappoint.
King Philip had early chances to try and take the lead off Smith, who recently became the state’s all-time leader in strikeouts. The Warriors had runners at second and third in the second inning with one out but were unable to get a bunt down. KP also left two on base in the fourth (seven total for the game), as Smith struggled to get into a groove.
Those missed opportunities would come back to haunt KP, as Smith settled down and recorded 10 of her 13 strikeouts in the final four innings. After the game, she admitted to having difficulty finding the zone in the first few innings.
“After the first half of the game I was able to adjust and I understood his zone and we were able to work on a better path,” said the University of Kentucky-bound senior.
Macchi credited his pitcher for battling through the adversity early-on. He remarked, “When the going gets tough, she finds a way to get us out of it. She’s done it in the past and today was no different. Those first three innings they could have easily had two or three runs but she found a way to get outs.”
Smith was matched almost pitch for pitch by O’Neill. After giving up a pair of bloop hits to Smith and Fairbanks in the first inning, O’Neill, who will be pitching at Mercer next season, allowed only two other base runners until the bottom of the ninth and struck out eight along the way.
Beauchemin believed that his team had the right strategy at the plate against Smith, but was not able to capitalize. He also praised his pitcher for staying focused despite the lack of run support.
“I think you can bunt on this team, to be honest, but you need to get the ball down,” he explained. “We had opportunity after opportunity, but didn’t get the job done.”
Beauchemin continued, “It’s all about hitting at the right time and unfortunately, when we needed it, we didn’t come through. But, it didn’t bother Anna. She kept us in the game.”
After the game, both coaches recognized the atmosphere at the field. Macchi called it the biggest crowd that they have had at a game and Beauchemin called it a “state championship atmosphere.”
Beachemin continued, “This was definitely a South sectional championship game. I think that whoever won this game thought that they had a leg up, not to take anything away from Bridgewater-Raynham [the top seed in D1 South], but I think you have to put these teams out here in the next two.”
Macchi added, “I have been here eight years and we had an unbelievable state final win last year, but I’ll tell you right now that matches it for intensity. I told the girls yesterday that it was going to be a special day no matter what…because of the way KP plays, the way we play the game, it’s just two great teams going at, two great pitchers going at it and it lived up to the billing.”
Milford advances to the sectional semifinal on Thursday afternoon at Taunton High to play the winner of Sandwich and Franklin, which will be played tomorrow.