POULTNEY -- With two runners on, one out and the Mount Anthony Union High School softball team's lead cut to 4-3 in the seventh inning of the state championship game, it was nail-biting time -- every pitch the potential difference between victory and defeat.
But in the blink of an eye, on Mount Anthony pitcher Baylee Ports' 72nd pitch, it was over, just like that, on a play that will be talked about for the next 50 years and beyond in Bennington.
Missisquoi's Megan Rowell flew out to center fielder Morgan Hewitt for the second out, but at the same time, Emily Fournier tried to tag up to go from second to third. An alert Hewitt gunned a perfect throw to third baseman Makayla Farrara. The umpire took an extra beat, making sure the ball was caught, before he made the out sign. With the game won, the Patriots' contingent erupted.
"I never thought it would end like that," said Hewitt, who also scored a run in the title game. "The last batter came up and [assistant coach] Brooke [Remington] said, ‘She's hit it to you four times.' So the ball is going to come to me. I knew I had to get it and I could see the girl running to third out of the corner of my eye. So I got to throw it, and I knew [Makayla] caught it, so I started to run in. It was amazing."
It was the best defensive play in a game full of stout defense on both sides of the field.
"Watching Morgan, I had confidence that she'd get it," said senior shortshop Kate Goodell.
It was a fulfilling conculsion to an 18-2 season for MAU, tied for the best finish in the history of the program.
"She was ready to throw when she caught it," said MAU coach Katie Contrada. "The throw was right to Makayla, she caught it perfectly and laid the tag on. Morgan is a three year player, Makayla, a four year veteran, to have them both closing it out -- I can't ask for anything sweeter."
After each team went the first two innings without a hit, Mount Anthony scored all its runs in the third. No. 8 hitter Cheyenne Guetti started the rally with the Patriots' first hit, a single to right. Hewitt tried to sacrifice Guetti to second but a perfect bunt, and an error on the second baseman, gave MAU two on with no out. Goodell hit a grounder to short, but a hustling Hewitt beat the force, loading the bases. Keira Goodell scored the first run with a sacrifice fly to deep center and, after Ports flew out, Farrara had the big blow -- a sharp single under the third baseman's glove to drive in two runs and make it 3-0.
"We hit well today, especially after the first time through the lineup," said Contrada. "The bottom of the lineup started the rally. [Missisquoi pitcher] Arica [Bushey] was throwing us outside the whole game, so we had to adjust to it and get the bat on the ball. I was confident they could hit her, eventually you find the holes and runs cross the plate.
The next hitter for the Patriots, Julie Elwell, drove in Farrara with a single to center for a 4-0 lead. Kori Bow fouled out, but the damage was done.
"I knew coming in both teams were sound defensively, so it was a matter who brought the hitting and when would it happen," Kate Goodell said. "The hits came when they needed to."
In the top of the fourth Missisquoi threatened, putting two runners on with one out, but Ports got Hannah Choiniere to strike out and Kelli Patterson to line out to Bow at second to end the inning.
Ports was strong in the circle, allowing eight hits and three runs (two earned), striking out two and walking none while pitching to contact. Her counterpart, Bushey, allowed four runs, only one earned, and five hits.
In the fifth, Missisquoi got a run back after a Hannah Boudreau double, one of two she had in the game, and an error, the only one MAU committed on the day.
In the bottom of the fifth, MAU ran itself out of the inning, when a runner left the base too early -- resulting in the final out of the frame.
Mount Anthony benefited from a controversial play in the top of the sixth. After Rowell singled to center, Olivia Thayer tried to bunt for a hit. On the throw, there was a collision between Bow and Thayer, knocking Bow off first base. The first base umpire ruled Thayer was safe, but Contrada argued that Thayer had interfered. Contrada asked the first base umpire to ask for help from his fellow officials and after a few moments of delay, the home plate umpire ruled that Thayer was out for running out of the baseline.
"I thought she was out anyway from the play itself, when she ran into Kori," Contrada said. "She hit the white bag, and that's interference. That was a huge momentum changer."
Instead of two on and no out, Missisquoi had a runner at third and one out, and a frustrated Thunderbirds coach, Jay Hartman, screamed at the umpire for changing the call.
In the aftermath, Patterson singled to score Rowell, but Ports avoided any further damage.
Bushey went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the sixth, setting up the decisive frame. Boudreau flied out for the first out, but Kirstin Ward singled, as did Fournier to put two runners on. Autumn Beyor hit a grounder to second that Bow had trouble handling, Ward scored and everyone was safe. After a conference at the mound, on the next pitch, Rowell flied to Hewitt and the junior Patriot did the rest.
"I talked to them on the mound, I said they are a great team, we're still up one, it's no big deal," Contrada said. "Baylee was fighting hard to get the next out and they were confident she could do it."
It's the first title for the Patriots since 1988 -- nearly eight years before any of the current players were born.
"All of our coaches said, 30 or 40 years from now, when we have kids of our own ... we'll look back and say we were there," Goodell said. "It will be one of most fond memories and it's a blessing to have it with these girls."
"We had an amazing season, I can't ask for anything more," said a visibly exhausted Contrada, holding the VPA championship trophy. "They worked so hard with this their ultimate goal. We knew it was a reality. All season long, we knew this was in the back of our mind. They earned this."