By JOSH KAUFMANN
Colchester Sun/Essex Reporter
ESSEX — Another Division I playoff game against a top Metro Division rival, another back-and-forth, last-comeback-wins escape for the undefeated Hornets.
Four days after No. 1 seed Essex rallied three times to finally shake No. 8 Missisquoi in the quarterfinals, much of the offense in the 9-6 win coming on two Jamie Morin homers, shortstop Emily Harvey stopped the bleeding with her glove in the top of the seventh and moments later tied the game with one rocket out of left field.
The deep, powerful Essex lineup came into the game with 19 home runs after hitting three to beat MVU. Morin’s two Friday left her with four this spring, matching Sarah Knickerbocker and Makenna Thorne. Kaitlyn Butkus (3), Rachel Yandow (2), Maddie Catella (1), and Logan Pollard (1) had also gone deep.
Harvey’s name was absent from that list, her value coming from leather and getting on base from the leadoff spot.
The Lakers had just taken their third lead — usually a recipe for victory, but one that also failed the Thunderbirds in Friday’s quarterfinal — and were poised to do more in the top of the seventh when Harvey derailed their Castleton Express.
Instead, Essex will return to the title game for the third time in coach Ashley Stebbins’ three seasons. The 19-0 Hornets will face the winner of today’s North Country-Mt. Anthony matchup in Bennington, postponed from Tuesday. Essex and MAU split the past two titles, the Honets winning 4-2 in 2016 and the Patriots getting even a year ago, 7-6 in eight innings.
The Division I final is tentatively set for Saturday afternoon at 2 at Castleton University.
Colchester, the fifth seed but holder of the state’s two most-dominant pitchers in Gatorade winner Riley Magoon and fellow no-hitter collector Alli Sheets, took a 1-0 lead in the top of the third on Brynn Coughlin’s 2-out single, a wild pitch, and Sheets’ RBI single.
Essex tied it in the home fourth when Molly Bruyns doubled with one out and Thorne plated her with an RBI single. Morin’s single put runners at the corners, but Magoon got an inning-ending fly to Olivia Brodeur in right to keep it tied as the skies started to darken and light rain continued to fall.
The Lakers regained the lead in the fifth, but the first of two intentional walks to Magoon paid off with an inning-ending fly grabbed by Essex center fielder Maddie Catella.
Essex ace Caitlyn Toth followed her 1-2-3 fourth with two quick outs to start the fifth, getting a pop-up to second baseman Regan Day and a comebacker. CHS leadoff hitter Sam Messier drew her second walk of the afternoon, though, Coughlin hit her second straight single, and Sheets made it 2-1 with her second straight RBI hit. Stebbins gave Magoon a free pass to load the bases rather than a chance at a 3-run swing, and Catella’s catch set up Essex’s second comeback.
If the free pass bothered Magoon, it didn’t show. The senior set down the first hitter in the bottom of the fifth on three pitches, and struck out the next as well, on four. No. 9 hitter Day only saw one pitch, but it was enough for a single to keep the inning going and bring Harvey to bat for an RBI single and a 2-2 tie. Bruyns’ second hit in a row advanced Harvey, and Thorne’s RBI single gave Essex its first lead. Magoon again escaped what could have been bigger trouble, getting a called third strike to leave Bruyns and Thorne on the bases.
The Metro rivals were unable to cash in on sixth-inning opportunities, Colchester not advancing Ella Cote after her 2-out single and Essex leaving two on after walks to Logan Pollard and Catella before Sheets took over in the circle and got an inning-ending strikeout.
Colchester was down to its last three outs but had Messier starting it off, and came through with two huge runs to again go in front.
The leadoff girl singled to reach base for the third time in four chances, and quickly scored when Coughlin crushed a run-scoring double to left field — just beyond Knickerbocker’s considerable range — for a 3-3 deadlock. After Sheets singled, Stebbins wasted no time pointing Magoon in the direction of first base, again to load the bases.
Essex finally got the first out with a force at home on a quick play by third baseman Bruyns, but Cierra Morse’s sacrifice fly scored Sheets for a 4-3 lead, and a wild pitch put runners at second and third for Trinity Callahan, with a chance to break it open.
But once more Toth and the Essex defense merely bent. And for the 2018 playoff Hornets, keeping it close was all that was needed.
Against MVU, the late heroics were provided by Morin’s 3-run homer and by sensational catches by Thorne and Knickerbocker.
To get past the Lakers, the late heroics were provided by Harvey’s home run and by Harvey’s sensational catch. And an encore by Thorne and Knickerbocker, this time with their brains, bats, and base running.
Callahan did her job, driving a low liner toward left field as Magoon sprinted home from third and Comi raced around behind her. Harvey ignored the circling blue jerseys as she dove hard to her right, making what would have been a shoestring catch had her shoestrings not been flying in the air behind her as she slammed into the dirt before quickly holding her glove, with the ball, aloft.
The senior captain had just enough time to get her breath back before leading off the bottom of the seventh, with dreams of a perfect season and a shot at the program’s eighth state title now also three outs from ending.
Four pitches later, the dream was alive.
Harvey left little mystery about whether her first home run would clear the fence in left field, rounding first and breaking into a grin as it hit the ground 10 feet out of Cole’s reach, tying the game at four.
One out later, Thorne set up the winner and a trip to Castleton with a masterful at-bat, laying off an 0-2 pitch that was waist-high but inches outside. The next offering from Sheets arrived just inside the previous one, and Thorne found it just to her liking for a single.
The senior co-captain stole second before Sheets got a fly to Callahan for the second out, and the next Murderer in the Row — Knickerbocker — ended it with a rocket deep into center field, scoring Thorne without a play at the plate.
After a bit of hesitation as they watched Knickerbocker run to second, and another bit after she got there — The Hornets didn’t exactly have a season full of practice at dramatic, seventh-inning walkoff wins — the celebration was on.