REGION — It was touch and go for awhile but the North Middlesex softball team punched its ticket to the Districts in the final week of the season.
North Middlesex was sitting with a 7-9 record after dropping a 3-0 decision to Gardner with an ominous schedule in front of them. On tap the next three days were a home game with Nashoba, a road tilt at Wachusett, and a rematch at Nashoba. Looming after those three games was the season finale at tough Leominster.
But the Lady Patriots rode the strong right arm of senior pitcher Nicole Monroe to three consecutive wins. Monroe pitched back-to-back 1-0 shutouts over Nashoba (eight innings) and Wachusett, before posting a 4-2, eight-inning victory over Nashoba. Over a four day period, Monroe was brilliant over 29 grueling innings.
“After we lost to Gardner I looked at our schedule and thought we might be in trouble,” said North Middlesex coach Pat Murphy. “Wachusett might have been the easiest remaining game, but they are a mirror-image of us. They were also playing for their playoff life, which made the task that much tougher.”
The first win over Nashoba was crucial, and prevented the Lady Pats from totally having their backs to the wall. Monroe was backed by an outstanding defensive effort, keyed by Tracey Ericson in center field. But Courtney Collier matched goose eggs with Monroe over the first seven innings, until the Lady Pats manufactured a run in the eight to prevail.
Ivy Collins led off the bottom of the eighth with her third single of the game. Ericson laid down a perfect bunt, and her hustle to first base forced a wild throw, allowing Collins to scamper around with the winning run.
“We basically were playing a double elimination tournament starting on Tuesday,” said Murphy. “That win was huge. If we would have lot there would have been no margin for error.”
The next day the script was similar as the Lady Pats got hooked up in another taut duel against Wachusett. Leah Crisostamo came through with a clutch double to drive in a run in the fourth and Monroe made it stand up as North Middlesex climbed to the .500 mark with two games remaining.
On Thursday at Nashoba, the Lady Pats pulled off a gutsy win over the Chieftains. Nashoba took a 2-0 lead with single runs in the second and fourth innings and held that lead entering the top of the sixth. They broke through the tough serves of Collier to tie the game on run-producing hits by Amanda Quin and Ivy Collins.
In the top of the eighth, North Middlesex broke the deadlock when Crisostamo plated Kim Hodder with a single, before Collins added an insurance run with a sacrifice fly. Monroe (eight innings, five hits, seven strikeouts, no walks) shut down Nashoba in the bottom of the inning and the ticket to the District was punched.
“By the end of Thursday’s game, Nicole was on the verge of exhaustion,” said Murphy. “We are built around her and she came up big. But everyone has risen to the occasion. We have gotten big hits and timely defensive plays. Amanda Quin has done a great job of calling games behind the plate. Defensively Emileigh Cenedella has just gotten better and first base through hard work, and Tracey Ericson in center field and Leah Crisostamo in right have have played very well. I think we are playing our best softball at the right time and I hope we are a dangerous low seed heading into the Districts.”
Will the pressure the team has played under the final week be a plus come playoff time?
“There’s more pressure in some regards when you need to win to get in that after you get in,” said Murphy. “It’s a must-win situation for more than one game. We have to replace our entire infield and they have improved as they have gained experience. We are in, and now we will try to do something more.”