By Sean Sweeney
AYER -- The key to any lineup is the heart of it. When hitters No. 3, 4 and 5 are feeling their stroke, it's hard to lose.
That's been the case for the Ayer Shirley Regional softball team as it nears the quarter post for the 2019 spring season: Those three -- Lezlie Walker, Kaitlyn Bremer and Hannah Justice -- have been the engine for the Panthers so far.
Last week, that troika led to a good chunk of runs in Ayer Shirley's 11-6 win over North Middlesex Regional in the championship game of the inaugural Rita Briggs Memorial Tournament.
First-year Ayer Shirley coach Gwen Reimer was pleased with the win.
"We knew that North Middlesex has a lot of power, so we knew it would be a matter of time before their bats got going. Luckily for us, we score early in just about every game, so we got off to a good start," she said. "We tried to keep everything low on them, with a lot of dropped balls and movement to keep them off-balance.
"Winning the tournament is a big confidence-booster, I think, for us."
The Panthers jumped on top 3-0 in the bottom of the first, doing so with two outs.
Walker (2 of 3, 3 runs, RBI; four hits in the tourney), a freshman who earned the tournament's MVP award, drew a 3-1 walk before she stole second with Bremer (3 for 4, 3 runs, 3 RBIs; six hits over the two days) at the plate. Bremer worked the count full before she hit a run-scoring single through the right side.
She, too, swiped second with Justice (1 for 2, 2 runs) up.
Two wild pitches on consecutive pitches brought Justice in, and it was 3-0 in favor of the hosts.
It remained 3-0 until the third, when Ayer Shirley added a run courtesy a double steal. Justice, who reached on a dropped third strike, swiped second base. And as North Middlesex threw down, Bremer, who had singled, took home.
North Middlesex answered in the home half of the fourth.
Julia DiLoreto reached on a throwing error, before Rachel Brouillette (2 for 4) tattooed the second pitch she saw and drove it to left-center for a two-run homer, cutting the deficit in half, 4-2.
Maggie Hackler (2 for 3) then reached on an infield single through the box, and she went all the way to third on Nina Sullivan's base hit just to the right of second base.
Two hitters later, Madi LeCreta's sacrifice fly to left brought Hackler in, and it was a one-run game.
But in the home half of the fifth, the heart of the Ayer lineup came up aces.
"The middle of our lineup has been doing a fantastic job all season of stringing hits together; the least amount of runs we've scored in a game is five, which is still pretty good. So we're being aggressive at the plate, which is huge for us, and we're being aggressive on the bases," Reimer said.
Hackler (7 strikeouts, 5 walks, 7 hits) had retired five in a row before walking Maddie Davis. From there, Walker singled sharply to center, moving Davis all the way around to third.
Bremer then ripped a one-out flare to right, bringing both runners in to give the Panthers some insurance, 6-3.
With Bremer at second, Hackler walked Justice, and Bremer took third as ball four got away from the catcher. Justice took second, and Hackler then walked Sam Lawton to load the bases.
A wild pitch to Mindie Breest brought in Bremer before Breest drove in the other two with a base hit to left-center, giving the hosts a 9-3 lead.
"We were beating ourselves that inning," North Middlesex coach Janice Portlock said. "They just lost a little focus, but they came back. We were one run down for a while. We made some mental mistakes, but I'm proud of them for the way they battled."
North Middlesex made it 9-6 thanks to some sharp hitting by the bottom third of the order, as Alex Bellemare, LeCreta and Brenna Adams each had a hit off Breest (4 strikeouts, 2 walks, 11 hits), before Danielle Croft (2 for 4) unloaded on a triple to right.
"We've been working hard on making contact with the ball and not taking called third strikes," Portlock said. "The bottom of the order came through today."
Ayer Shirley rounded out the scoring in the bottom of the sixth with a pair of runs.
Clinton topped Groton-Dunstable in the consolation game of the Rita Briggs Memorial Tournament at Ayer Shirley Regional High School.
Emma Wilson had 2 hits and scored 2 runs for G-D. Brecca Brennan hit a double and scored a run.
Kana Norton smacked a double, while Cassidy Heulings, Jenna Beauchain and Maya Barros scored 1 run each.