BENNINGTON -- The tension was so thick as the outs clicked away, it could be cut with a knife.
With one out remaining between the No. 2 Mount Anthony Union High School softball team and a date in the Division I finals, No. 3 BFA St. Albans had two runners on and senior leadoff hitter Breanna Dupuis at the plate.
Dupuis worked the count to 2-2 and then MAU hurler Baylee Ports threw her 101st pitch -- a riseball -- that Dupuis missed, sending the Patriots to a 3-2 win over the Comets and to their first final since 2009.
"She's a good hitter, she got a hit the first time [up] and I knew she was coming ready to hit," Ports said. [Catcher] Julie [Elwell] made good calls behind the plate. I was hoping I could get her to ground out, but this was even better. It's one of the biggest games I've ever played."
"[Dupuis] is probably their best hitter, but I knew Baylee would get it done," said MAU coach Katie Contrada, who will make her first final appearance leading the Patriots. "She's a total gamer, she's fierce out there and I knew that she wouldn't let her get a hit. Baylee's put in so much work throughout [her career] for moments like that; that's what you work for, to know you can do it."
Ports was dominant in the circle for the Patriots. The junior allowed two runs (one earned) and six hits -- all singles. She walked one and struck out 11, throwing 71 of her 101 pitches for strikes.
"We battled. [Abigayle Fugere] fouled off three or four [pitches in the seventh inning] and got a base hit with one out," said BFA coach Richard Berthiaume. "Joann Barton came off the bench and got a hit and then we had one of the better hitters up in that situation. We never gave up."
In the first inning, it looked like the game would end up a slugfest. BFA came out of the gate fast in the top of the first as Dupuis singled to left and Katelyn Parah sacrificed her to second. Emilie Teague singled to drive in Dupuis for the first run. After Paige Wilson fanned, Caroline Bonin singled to center to score Teague for a 2-0 lead.
But MAU came back with one in the bottom of the first to cut the deficit in half. Kate Goodell led off with a double over the center fielder's head and moved to third on sister Keira's groundout. Up next, Ports drove the first pitch from Maria Machia to deep right, allowing Kate Goodell to score on the sac fly.
"We were feeling good with hits early on, that gave our team some confidence," Berthiaume said. "Then they got the run back in the first. That put a damper on things for a bit but I said they have to trust what they've worked all year for."
After the quick offense from the Comets, Ports settled down nicely in the next two innings, striking out five of the six hitters up in the second and third.
"That first inning was one of the roughest in a while, but I'm thankful that my team can back me up," Ports said. "If they werent hitting, it would have been [a] 2-0 [game] and it would be all on me. When I came out in the second inning, I calmed down, settled in and trusted [catcher] Julie [Elwell] on what she's calling."
MAU took the lead in the third. Morgan Hewitt led off with a single through the hole between shortshop and third. On a 3-1 count, Goodell crushed a deep fly over the right fielder's outstretched glove for an RBI double to tie the game at 2-2. Two batters later, Ports grounded out but advanced Goodell to third with two out. Cleanup hitter Makayla Farrara drove home her classmate with a sharp single to left to give MAU a 3-2 advantage.
"Makayla and Kate have played varsity for four years and there's no one you want coming to the plate more than those kids," Contrada said. "You know they can get it done in pressure situations because their hard work over four years has paid off. When the pressure's on, and they have to get it done, [that's] who we want at the plate and they came through."
Machia allowed eight hits and three runs, all earned, while walking two and striking out one. Sixty-three of her 93 pitches were strikes.
"Maria's been the number one all year, but I was ready to go with [Devan Blodgett], my 1A. But [Maria] settled down in the last few innings," Berthiaume said.
Ports continued to strengthen as the game progressed, allowing only one hit and one walk from the fourth through the sixth innings. At the same time, Machia kept the Comets in it. Looking for insurance in the bottom of the fourth, Hewitt singled with two outs and Kate Goodell rocketed a shot off the pitcher's glove for a single to put two on. But Machia was saved by her defense when Keira Goodell lined a shot that was caught by the third baseman.
"I don't think there was a moment we doubted ourselves," Contrada said. "We've had close games and came back and won. We've had tight games where we've had to hold on. We were looking to get a single, put the ball in play, knowing the bats will get it done."
The teams traded zeros and MAU went into the top of the seventh looking for the final three outs.
Ports took care of the first one herself, striking out Samantha Dussault looking. Fugere fouled off four pitches before singling to center, but Ports induced a flyout to left from Machia to get one out away. Barton came off the bench for a base hit, leaving it up to Dupuis.
Now, the Patriots will face Missisquoi, 12-3 winners over No. 1 Essex in the other semifinal, on Saturday at Poultney in the Division I final as a time to be determined. They fell to the Thunderbirds in the quarterfinals, 3-2, last year.
"Our philosophy this year is that the past is in the past," Contrada said. "It's helpful that we played them last year, so we know some of the players, but it's a new season, all fresh."