On Thursday afternoon, the No. 9 seed Wilmington Wildcats (14-6) will travel to Danvers and take on the No. 8 seed Essex Aggie Tech team in a first round match-up of the Division 2 North sectional softball tournament, starting at 4:00 pm.
If Wilmington can defeat the Hawks, they would then travel to play the No. 1 seed Triton Vikings (17-1), Monday at 3:30 (according to the MIAA site) in Byfield.
This will be the fifth straight state tournament appearance for the Wildcats. Last year, Wilmington finished 13-7 and lost a terrific 1-0 game to Dracut.
The year before, the ‘Cats finished 14-6, knocked off Bedford, 10-1, before losing to Swampscott, 1-0, in the quarterfinals. In 2016 and ‘15, the Wildcats were defeated in the first round by Gloucester, 9-6 and Arlington, 6-0.
After Wilmington defeated Gr. Lowell Tech last Thursday to close out the regular season, assistant coach Walter Babcock thought his team would be in the middle of the bracket and pretty much finished a spot or two behind where he predicted.
"I think we may be around a sixth or seventh seed," he said. "Right now from what I was looking at, I think there's 12 teams that have qualified. Triton, North Reading, Burlington, Gloucester, Arlington Catholic and Whittier Tech should all be up there, then probably us and Saugus.
“The loss to Melrose hurt us a lot with the seedings. We just didn't play well defensively. For some reason, we always struggle at that field. They played a lot of small ball and we just couldn't make the plays."
Triton, Gloucester, Whittier Tech, North Reading, Arlington Catholic, Dracut and Burlington are the top seven seeds, then Essex Tech and Wilmington, followed by Danvers, Saugus, Marblehead and Bedford, the latter coached by Wilmington resident Dennis Walsh.
Last year, Wilmington's state tournament loss to Dracut was a thrilling game from start to finish as the 'Cats were huge underdogs. After losing the entire infield minus pitcher Ally Moran from that team, the Wildcats were again underdogs heading into this season but somehow they managed to win 14 games.
"I thought we did well," said Babcock. "Everything basically goes around Ally. If she has a strong game with double-figure strikeouts, we tell the girls that they just need to make the routine plays and we will win most games. That was the talk from the start to the finish (of the regular season), to make the routine plays and Ally averaged ten strikeouts a game.
"If we don't make the routine plays and make mistakes, we're in trouble. We just can't give up extra outs and that stuff. That was the big talk with us (at the start of the season), to be more of a defensive team because we have a pitcher with three years and now going into her fourth year of varsity experience."
Essex Tech tied for the CCA League Championship title. The team has been led by a variety of players, including the duo pitchers of senior Sheree Fallon (2.70 ERA, 83 innings, 70 strikeouts) and freshman southpaw Emily Graham (2.28 ERA, 50.2 innings, 47 strikeouts).
Offensively, the team has put up some big numbers. According to the Salem News, Fallon leads the team with a .520 average and 20 RBI. Ali Vienneau has had a sensational season and career. She is batting .571 with 13 RBI and has 57 stolen bases out of 60 attempts in three seasons. She also batted .595 and .525 in each of the previous two seasons.
Ally Countie is another batter with a high average of .429 with 18 RBI, while, Ally Flagg leads the team with three home runs and Emily Atwood has two.
Wilmington closed out the regular season with a 9-8 loss to Melrose and then a 13-1 win over Greater Lowell Tech.
In the loss to Melrose, Wilmington made five errors throughout the game, a handful led to six runs in the third inning. Due to the six runs, Melrose had a 9-3 lead and Wilmington mounted a big comeback scoring five runs.
"We just dug ourselves into an early hole due to shoddy defense," said Cabral-Pini. "We settled down defensively after the third (inning) but it was hard to erase the deficit. The girls fought hard, but just came up short today."
Bella Kieran led the offense going 3-for-3 with a home run and three RBI.
The next day, Wilmington dominated Gr. Lowell Tech, 13-1 in a game called in the bottom of the fifth inning due to the Mercy Rule. The 'Cats scored in all five innings, getting five, one, four, one and two, respectively.
In the first inning, Ryan Bailey had a two-run double, Gian Brunetto had a RBI bunt single and Kacie Bourrell drove in a run with an infield pop up to score Kieran, who alertly tagged up from third.
In the second inning, Bailey ground out to score Ashley Crawford, who started a one-out bases empty small rally with a single. In the third, Chase Anderson grounded out and collected a RBI to score Brunetto and was followed by back-to-back RBI singles by Jenna Sweeney and Crawford as part of the four run inning.
Kacie Bourrell drove in another run with a groundout in the fourth and then Bailey had RBI double and pinch-hitter Cassidy Ross drove her in with a single up the middle, which ended the game.
Ally Moran and Brunetto each had three hits in the game, while Bailey had two doubles, four RBI and scored two runs. Kieran had two hits and scored three times, while Kacie Bourrell had two RBI. Sweeney also had two hits, a RBI, stole a base and scored two runs.
Moran picked up the win, her 50th in her career as she went the five innings, giving up one earned run on four hits, while striking out four and not allowing a walk.
She was helped defensively by catcher Ashley Crawford, who was part of two double plays, the first she caught a bunt pop up and doubled up the runner at first and the second was a 2-3-2 double play, getting the runner out at home who tried to score from third.
Brunetto also threw out a runner at first base on a shallow fly ball to right field.