Hartford softball advances to D-II state semifinal

Hartford head coach Danielle Tenney, left, hugs Hailie Defabiis, a former Hartford softball player who graduated last year, after a VPA Division II softball quarterfinal game against Rice Memorial High School at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, June 5, 2023. Hartford won, 22-7. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hartford head coach Danielle Tenney, left, hugs Hailie Defabiis, a former Hartford softball player who graduated last year, after a VPA Division II softball quarterfinal game against Rice Memorial High School at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, June 5, 2023. Hartford won, 22-7. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news / report for america photographs — Alex Driehaus

Hartford’s Logan Evans (28) runs toward home plate after hitting the ball over the fence as her teammates Madison Willey (17) and Paige Vielleux (1) cheer her on during a VPA Division II softball quarterfinal game against Rice Memorial High School at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, June 5, 2023. Hartford won, 22-7. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hartford’s Logan Evans (28) runs toward home plate after hitting the ball over the fence as her teammates Madison Willey (17) and Paige Vielleux (1) cheer her on during a VPA Division II softball quarterfinal game against Rice Memorial High School at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, June 5, 2023. Hartford won, 22-7. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Hartford’s Serenitee Martel (15) attempts to tag out Rice’s Alayna Havreluk (13) as she slides back to third base during a VPA Division II softball quarterfinal game at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, June 5, 2023. Hartford won, 22-7. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hartford’s Serenitee Martel (15) attempts to tag out Rice’s Alayna Havreluk (13) as she slides back to third base during a VPA Division II softball quarterfinal game at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, June 5, 2023. Hartford won, 22-7. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

Hartford’s Logan Evans (28) slides into home as Rice’s Bella Messineo (18) attempts to tag her out during a VPA Division II softball quarterfinal game at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, June 5, 2023. Hartford won, 22-7. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hartford’s Logan Evans (28) slides into home as Rice’s Bella Messineo (18) attempts to tag her out during a VPA Division II softball quarterfinal game at Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, June 5, 2023. Hartford won, 22-7. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news / report for america — Alex Driehaus

By BENJAMIN ROSENBERG

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-07-2023 3:05 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — It’s been a quarter-century since the Hartford High softball team made it this far, and while satisfied, the Hurricanes believe their ride is far from over.

Facing a four-run deficit in the third inning of Monday’s resumed Vermont Division II quarterfinal against Rice, top-seeded Hartford got the bats rolling, taking its first lead in the fifth and then exploding for 12 runs in the sixth for a 22-7 victory over the No. 8 seed Knights. The Hurricanes are through to the semifinals for the first time since 1998.

“We were very nervous the whole game,” Hartford coach Danielle Tenney. “Sometimes it takes us an inning or two to start opening up and hitting. Everything we did as far as hitting and baserunning was preparing for a tight game.”

It certainly looked like it would be a tight game when a thunderstorm rolled in Friday evening, after the teams had traded first-inning runs. Once play resumed Monday, Rice continued to make hard contact against Hurricanes senior pitcher Marina Grassi, with March Lumbra singling in two runs in the second and Lynsey Nagle plating two more with a single in the third. Hartford’s deficit could have been even bigger had junior shortstop Madison Willey not cut down a runner at the plate with a perfect relay throw.

Willey, who drove in the Hurricanes’ first run with a double, went 3-for-4 with four RBIs and three runs scored. She said Rice, out of South Burlington, plays higher-level competition in the regular season than Hartford, which competes in the Southern Vermont League and had played just one team from the northern part of the state, losing to Division I member St. Johnsbury.

Through 2½ innings, the Knights had seven hits to Hartford’s one, and Rice pitcher Alayna Havreluk had struck out five while Grassi had recorded just one strikeout.

“We’ve never really faced a team that’s this good,” Willey said. “All the northern teams have really fast pitching, and we don’t face that much fast pitching. Once we got the hang of it, we all got a good feeling of the pitcher and we definitely hit a lot better.”

The Hurricanes (14-3) began their comeback in the bottom of the third. Grassi and Willey led off the inning with back-to-back singles. With one out, junior first baseman Logan Evans launched a three-run home run that cleared the left-field fence at Maxfield Sports Complex to make it a one-run game. It was the second ball Evans has hit out of Maxfield this season, and she is still the only high school player who has done so.

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With runners at second and third and two outs in the fourth, Rice elected to intentionally walk Willey to load the bases, and the move immediately backfired when Havreluk’s next pitch hit sophomore outfielder Paige Vielleux on the leg, forcing in the tying run.

Hartford then pulled ahead in the fifth. Freshman Faith Brown hit a one-out triple that dropped just inside the right-field foul line. Following a walk, junior second baseman Rebecca Keelty’s sharp ground ball into right-center went for a two-run double to give the Hurricanes their first lead. Grassi then singled to score Keelty, and Hartford added two more in the inning on a Vielleux sacrifice fly and a wild pitch.

“We were all nervous in the beginning, and then we found our zone,” Grassi said. “I have been hitting with my dad a lot, and he really helped me for this game, looking back to him before I got in the box and him telling me to drive my hands and hit the ball.”

Grassi settled down in the circle after the first three innings, suffering a minor hiccup in the sixth but getting back-to-back infield pop-ups to strand runners at second and third. She mixed speeds well and changed the hitters’ eye levels — in one fourth-inning sequence, she got Maddie Ryley to chase a rise ball above her head for strike two, then went with a changeup tailing below the zone to get another swing and miss for the strikeout.

Brown, Grassi, Willey and Vielleux all had run-scoring hits in Hartford’s big sixth inning that turned a tight game into one with the appearance of a blowout.

The Hurricanes, who received their first No. 1 seed in program history, will be back at Maxfield for the semifinals Wednesday against fifth-seeded Middlebury (11-6), which edged No. 4 seed Enosburg Falls in its quarterfinal. The Tigers rolled over Hartford, 14-2, in last year’s quarterfinals in White River Junction, but a win for Tenney’s team Wednesday in the program’s third-ever semifinal would send the Canes to the state championship game for the first time.

“We did not hit as well as we could have (last year),” Tenney said. “We could have hit off their pitcher — we just kept flying out and didn’t hit the way we should have — and we made a lot of errors that really broke us that game after a really good season. This group is completely different than last year’s group; they have a lot more confidence.

“We’re preparing to do the same thing we did with Rice today — prepare for good hitting, make the big plays in the field and try to hit the ball hard. I don’t think there’s any pitcher right now that we can’t hit.”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at brosenberg@vnews.com or 603-727-3302.