Softball playoff preview: Concord vies for D-I championship; Coe-Brown, John Stark, Bow and others compete in loaded D-II 

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 05-31-2023 12:16 AM

With Concord sitting at the top of the Division I softball standings, four schools (Coe-Brown, John Stark, Bow, Merrimack Valley) fighting for a title in D-II and Hopkinton and Pittsfield among the best in D-III and D-IV, 2023 has been another standout season for area softball programs.

In D-I, the Tide entered the season on the heels of two straight losses in the championship game with a hunger to hoist the championship plaque. They’ve channeled that hunger into success so far.

On May 17, Concord took down Exeter, 4-1, in a rematch of last year’s championship game, a win that proved that this group is ready for postseason play to begin.

With the paired dominance of junior pitchers Sarah Taylor and Maddy Wachter in the circle and the leadership of veterans like Delaney Duford, Kennedy Craigue and Olivia Crawford, Concord has all it needs to make a deep run again this June.

“It’s a very talented group from 1 to 14 on this team,” head coach Duke Sawyer said at an early May practice. “That’s what makes it unique. The bench is as good as the players I have out there. Lots of teams have seven, eight, nine really good players and then the rest sort of fill in, but this team is loaded top to bottom.

“They’re all softball nuts. They play a lot.”

The Tide wrapped up the regular season 17-1, outscoring opponents by an average of 9.6 runs per game.

In Division II, five area teams have punched their ticket to the playoffs.

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Coe-Brown, the defending champions, have hit a few more bumps in the road this season (three losses) than last (just one loss) but still sit in a tie for second place.

Led by senior Madison DeCota, the Bears will prove challenging to take down. In a rematch of last year’s championship game with John Stark on April 26, DeCota was 3-for-4 at the plate with a home run and four RBIs while also pitching a complete game.

Such is par for the course for her softball career at Coe-Brown.

“Her natural talent is off the charts,” head coach Dave Allis said in early May. “It’s second to her will to win, or her will not to lose. She’s really been able to maintain her composure through that because some kids have that but they can’t control it. She’s able to stay stoic. When she wants it, she gets it. It comes from an incredible work ethic, so you put those three things together — talent, will to win and work ethic — and that’s what you get.”

The Generals, who finished last year as the D-II runners-up, have had a similarly successful 2023 campaign. That late April loss at Coe-Brown dropped them to 4-2 on the season, but head coach Denis Kolehmainen expressed confidence that his group was in a strong spot.

At that point, John Stark had faced six opponents who, at that time, had a combined record of 22-10.

“I think we’re doing well,” he said after the loss to the Bears. “We’ve played every top-five team, so I think we’re in good shape.”

Since then, the Generals lost their next game to Campbell before rattling off nine wins in a row to close out the regular season at 13-3.

With top pitcher Olivia Hargreaves, who threw a 15-inning, 191-pitch complete game against Hollis-Brookline on April 24, the Generals should also be a tough team to take down in the playoffs.

Just below John Stark in the standings, Bow and Merrimack Valley both sit at 10-6.

After finishing last season 9-9, Bow’s taken a bigger leap forward this season. Especially considering how the Falcons kicked off the season, their current positioning warrants all the more praise.

On opening day against Oyster River, Bow overcame a 3-2 deficit in the bottom of the seventh when sophomore Caly Poitras hit a walk-off fielder’s choice, but the Falcons dropped each of their next two games, losing to MV, 13-1, and to Pembroke, 12-4. Since that point, Bow won nine of its final 13 games, including a revenge win over Merrimack Valley. The Falcons also hoped to get revenge against Pembroke in the final game of the regular season but came up short.

“It’s a little bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde team at times,” head coach Jen Boyden said of her group after the Pembroke loss. “You don’t quite know what you’re going to get.”

As for the Pride, under former MV athletic director Kevin O’Brien the team also experienced a late-season surge. After starting the year 4-4, MV won six of its last eight games.

A key player to watch for the Pride: senior Liv Lacasse. In her final regular season home game against Kennett — a 19-1 win for MV — Lacasse was 4-for-4 with three RBIs and pitched a complete game in the circle, albeit just five innings because of the mercy rule.

“One thing about Liv: She manages the game well. She’s been doing that for three years,” O’Brien said after the Kennett win. “When she gets down in the hole, she knows what to do; she knows when you gotta come with something. Quite frankly, without her, we would be a much different team. She’s one of the top pitchers in the league.

“She’s definitely our go-to person. There’s no question.”

Rounding out Division II playoff participants in the area, Pembroke snags the No. 11 seed.

While pitching and defense have generally been shaky all season for the Spartans, the offense has remained consistent. Pembroke had seven games with 10 or more run scored. But how far the team goes in the postseason depends on the defense.

“When we catch the ball, we’re tough because we can hit,” head coach John Manni said after their 11-3 win over Bow. “(Today) was one of our better games.”

In Division III, Hopkinton finishes the regular season near the top of the standings at 11-5.

It’s a veteran team in 2023 for the Hawks, with five seniors and three juniors on the roster. They also have seven freshmen, who head coach Dan Meserve mentioned have also provided a boost.

“They’ve just been so upbeat, and they’ve been great to have in practice,” he said after the Hawks beat Bishop Brady on May 4. “They just love being here, so it’s been a nice mix of that.”

Meanwhile, Pittsfield rounds out area softball teams, representing Division IV. The Panthers finished the season 13-3 and will be the fourth seed in the playoffs.

Softball playoffs begin on Wednesday.

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