TAUNTON, Mass. - North Attleborough scored three runs in the bottom of the first inning and that turned out to be enough for Gatorade Massachusetts Softball Player of the Year and Hockomock League MVP Meg Colleran, who got plenty of help from her defense against free-swinging Franklin.
The Red Rocketeers (18-3) advanced to their first Division 1 South sectional final in program history with a 5-1 win over the Panthers in an all-Hockomock semifinal on Saturday afternoon at Jack Tripp Field.
“We didn’t strikeout many times. She’s the strikeout queen, Gatorade Player of the Year and we only struck out twice so we’ll take the good points,” said Franklin coach Kate Fallon. “We put the ball in play. It just stunk that we gave them three runs in the first inning.”
Against a team willing to swing at the first pitch, Colleran threw her fewest pitches in a game this season (60) and had her fewest strikeouts (two). The Panthers approach did cause the UMass-bound senior to come up with a different mentality.
“We were just trying to get outs any way that we can,” said Colleran. “They were swinging at the first pitch, so I think me and [catcher Mycala Moody’s] strategy was just put it somewhere where we’re going to get easy groundball outs, easy fly ball outs so we could get back in and hit.”
The strategy was aided by the Rocketeers putting up three runs in the first inning.
Marissa Gifford led-off with a walk against Franklin senior starter Lily Criscione, which was followed by an infield single by Moody (3-for-4). Colleran lined a single to right that scored one run and she advanced into scoring position on the throw. MacKenzie Sherman and Danielle Gorman each followed with RBI-groundouts to give North a solid lead.
“All three of our tournament games, we’ve scored in the first inning,” said North Attleborough coach Bill Wallace. “That lead is huge because late in the game, if they want to bunt or do something, we’re getting outs versus trying to cut down lead runners.”
Of the first inning, Fallon said, “It was a tough start; you can’t spot them three and try to comeback. We weren’t ready to go in the first inning and then we settled in and I thought we played great innings two through five.”
She admitted that the Panthers plan at the plate was to attack early in the count. She said, “Just be aggressive -- you’re the 18th seed and you ‘don’t belong here’ and just get in there and swing.”
The Panthers (14-10) were able to put the ball in play a lot against the Hockomock’s leader in strikeouts. In fact, the Rocketeers had to make 19 outs in the field (with no errors) and several were of highlight reel-caliber. Julianna Johnson made a diving grab in the second to rob Olivia DiGiacomo of extra bases and third baseman Lindsey Paquin snared a grounder Sabrina LoMonaco in the seventh that seemed destined for left.
“It’s a testament to our coaching staff being loyal to the kids and not panicking,” said Wallace. “[The players] stepped up this year. This is the farthest this program has ever gone.”
Colleran added, “They’ve put in the work all year long and some games they don’t get as much action maybe, but today they had all but two outs and they did a really, really good job. If you don’t have confidence in your defense then they’re not going to have confidence in you.”
Franklin got its lone run in the top of the sixth. With one out, leadoff hitter Erin Hanley was hit by a pitch then promptly stole second. She advanced to third on a deep line drive to center and was able to come home on a wild pitch to make it 3-1.
The momentum did not last long as North tacked on a pair of insurance runs in the bottom half of the inning. Gorman smacked a single to left and Rachel Murphy followed with a bunt single. After a strikeout, Emily Knobel bunted and it was thrown away to load the bases.
Gifford grounded to second but the ball was bobbled and then thrown into left and two runs came home to score. Moody got her third infield single of the game by beating out a bunt to reload the bases, but Criscione limited the damage by striking out Colleran (who was also one of the league’s leading hitters).
Criscione also came up in the seventh and blasted a one-out double to straightaway center, but was doubled off on a hard liner back to Colleran by DiGiacomo to end the game.
There was some disappointment from Fallon that the Panthers could not get past the semifinal stage for the second straight year, but she recognized what a great achievement it was to make it to this stage as the No. 18 seed.
She said, “There’s no quit. There’s no quit. Even Lily, ended her career with a double over the centerfielder’s head. I can’t ask for anything more from them. I’m proud of them.”
Jack Tripp Field has not been a favorite venue for the Rocketeers in recent years with several playoff runs ending in the semifinal stage, as well as a first round loss to Taunton last year. But earlier this season, North beat the Tigers and Colleran admitted that it may have given the team a little more confidence going into Saturday.
“Being able to get a win at this field probably helped us out,” she said. “We’ve been wanting to do this for a while and it feels really good to finally be here.”
North Attleborough will face top seed Bridgewater-Raynham in the sectional final on Monday at 5 p.m. in Taunton.