LOWELL — After losing its entire infield, minus pitcher Ally Moran, from last year’s state tournament team, the thought of getting back to post-season play seemed like a tall order for the Wilmington High School Softball team.
Quickly those thoughts changed as the revamped Wildcats with seven new starting players, started the season off strong with wins over Middlesex League Liberty Division foes Woburn and Belmont.
Then over the next five weeks, the Wildcats — minus two games against Burlington — played terrific ball, with the players improving every step of the way, while the team started to peck away with a handful of wins, including this past week over Wakefield, Melrose, Gr. Lowell Tech and Stoneham.
Those four wins pushed Wilmington’s record to 11-5 overall, which qualified the team for the Division 2 North Sectional tournament.
“We knew heading into this season that we had a veteran pitcher back in Ally and she would keep us in games,” said head coach Audrey Cabral-Pini. “We thought that if she could develop her change-up a bit more, it would compliment her fastball. She’s a location pitcher. If she could do that, we thought she could get ten strikeouts a game, and then hopefully the new infielders could make the routine outs and we would be OK.
“With the inexperience we had with the infield, we just had to decide the positions. We knew that Ashley Crawford would be the catcher and she has really stepped up and has done a great job. We also knew that Kayla Bourrell would be the shortstop because she can really move.
“Then it was just a matter of deciding who would play first and third because we didn’t watch to move the two returning outfielders we had (in Ryan Bailey and Gianna Brunetto). Once we decided the spots, we did a lot more teaching and instructing than we have (in years past). We did a lot of footwork drills and just working on technique. The girls have not only made the routine plays, but have improved so much.”
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. Counting this season with four games left, Wilmington has a very impressive 62-39 record.
Qualifying for the state tournament with four games to go is a true credit to the entire program with Coaches Cabral-Pini and Walter Babcock, as well as the players.
“Even with Ally coming back, there was no guarantee that we would qualify for the state tournament, but the guarantee that we did have was the team would be better in day ten from day one," said Cabral-Pini. "We haven’t hit much, but we have scratched out runs. We’ll get on base by an error or a walk, steal second and then score a run. It’s such a sigh of relief to see our bats come alive (against Gr. Lowell).”
In the win over Greater Lowell, the ‘Cats struck early with two runs in the top of the second without getting a hit before scoring seven more runs the rest of the game. Leading the way offensively included Bella Kieran (3-for-4, RBI, run scored), Jenna Sweeney and Brunetto (2-for-4), Moran (-for-3, double, sac fly, 2 RBI), Kacie Bourrell with 2 RBI and Ryan Bailey and Kayla Bourrell with one RBI each.
"It was great to see our bats come alive,” said Cabral-Pini. “We have been in a long slump and frustration was really setting in. Even when we didn't reach base on a hit, our hitting mechanics/approach was much better than it has been in a long while.”
Moran tossed her 15th complete game of the year and picked up her tenth win, giving up just five hits and striking out ten.
Earlier in the week, Wilmington defeated Melrose, 1-0, on Saturday morning, which came two days after beating Wakefield 6-1. The day before that, the 'Cats were defeated by Burlington, 9-0.
In the win over Melrose, the 'Cats scored the lone run of the game in the bottom of the second inning. Kayla Bourrell led off the inning with a single. She quickly moved around the bases, going to second on an error, and then advancing to third and home on separate passed balls.
That was more than enough for Moran, who was in complete control. She tossed a one-hit shut out with 12 strikeouts, which pushed her over the 600 mark in her outstanding career.
The only time Moran got into some trouble was in the top of the fourth inning. Melrose had runners at first and second with no outs before Moran struck out the team's clean-up hitter. That followed when the No. 5 hitter connected with a line drive to right field and Gianna Brunetto made a great catch, and then fired the ball to first base to double up the runner for the huge double play.
Offensively, Bailey led the 'Cats as she finished 2-for-3 on the day.
In the win over Wakefield, again Moran was dominating as she only allowed two hits and struck out ten.
The teams exchanged a run in the third inning. Wilmington got their run as Jenna Sweeney reached on an error, stole second, advanced to third on a fly ball and scored on a RBI single by Bailey.
In the fifth, Wilmington added a run which proved to be the game winner. Kacie Bourrell hit a sharp single over shortstop to get things going. Sweeney reached first as Bourrell was forced at second and that followed by back-to-back singles from Crawford and Moran, the latter driving in Sweeney.
The Wildcats broke the game open with four runs in the top of the sixth. Brunetto started things as she reached on a beautiful bunt single. Tori Gemellaro came off the bench and got her first varsity hit of the season. Kacie Bourrell reached on an error and the inning continued with singles by Sweeney and Crawford, as well as a pair of fielder's choice groundouts which plated two runs.
Defensively, Chase Anderson had a strong game including making two strong back-to-back plays in the fifth inning.
On Tuesday night, Wilmington blanked Stoneham, 9-0, on Senior Night. All five seniors — Moran, Bailey, the Bourrell sisters and Brunetto — all contributed to the win, like they have all season.
Moran tossed a complete game two-hit shut out with 12 strikeouts. Bailey slugged a triple, reached base three times and scored three runs. Kayla Bourrell finished 2-for-3 with two RBI and scored twice. Brunetto was 1-for-3 with a RBI and Kacie Bourrell reached twice on walks.
"The three captains, Kayla, Ally and Ryan have been great," said Cabral-Pini. "With all of the rainouts and rescheduling of games and practices, they have done a real nice job handling all of that. Each one brings something different to the plate. Ally is the quiet leader, Kayla is full of vim and vigor and Ryan just gets things done.
“Ryan has been in a groove offensively, so hopefully that continues. Kayla had elbow and shoulder problems earlier on and has overcome those injuries. Then Kacie and Gianna have both done a great job in the outfield. Gianna made the play of the year in the win over Melrose. The two of them have really stepped up.
Also contributing in the win included Bella Kieran, who was 2-for-3 with a triple and 3 RBI, Chase Anderson with two stolen bases and Kiara Nadeau came off the bench and delivered a base hit, her first in a varsity uniform.
The team will conclude its regular season with games at Lowell Catholic on Friday, at Newburyport on Monday and then home vs Greater Lowell on Friday, May 31st and at Melrose on June 3rd.
The MIAA will release the pairings for the state tournament on June 4th with first round games slated for June 6th.