Sweet 16 for Northmen

Sweet 16 for Northmen

North Smithfield senior shortstop Lorenza O’Donnell is among the players who are having exceptional seasons for the Northmen, who clinched the Division II regular-season championship last week and are beginning the D-II playoffs on Thursday afternoon. (Breeze photo by Eric Benevides)
After absorbing ugly loss in D-II opener, softball team rides long win streak to regular-season title

NORTH SMITHFIELD – Even the best high school softball teams have a low point or two in their seasons. For North Smithfield, no point was as low as the Northmen’s Division II season opener against neighboring Mount Saint Charles on a cold April afternoon at Pacheco Park.

The Northmen didn’t just lose that game to the Mounties, they got blasted, 14-4, in a game that saw Mount rack up 18 hits, three of them home runs, and take advantage of some sloppy defensive play by their hosts.

It was a brutal start for a very young team that had 10 underclassmen on its roster, but it was a start that was soon followed by something that no one, not even head coach Paul Mercier, could imagine in their wildest dreams.

The Northmen not only came back to mercy-rule the next team they faced, but they also went on to win their next 15 games after that, and in the process, they captured their first regular-season title (and fourth in the last six years) with a 16-1 mark and landed the top seed in the D-II playoffs that began this week.

The Northmen sewed up their championship last Tuesday, May 23, at home by soaring to a 13-0 triumph over Middletown that was halted after 4½ innings by the mercy rule, and the following afternoon, they put an exclamation point on their regular season with their fifth mercy-rule victory in their last six games, downing Mount Hope, 13-12, at Bristol’s Colt State Park.

“I never would have thought, when we started, that we would have finished this season in first place,” Mercier said after the victory over Middletown. “My goal this year was to win 10 games – 10-7, that’s what I hoping for. I thought, ‘That would be a positive season if we could pull that off. I’d be happy with that.’ And when we passed (10 wins), I said, ‘I can’t believe it. This team is really resilient.’”

On its way to winning the division by two games over Mount (14-3) and three over South Kingstown and Barrington (both 13-4), the Northmen outscored their opposition, 185-76, and while that looks like they cruised through their schedule, think again. They squeaked out one-run victories over Rogers, Barrington, and Johnston, as well as a two-run win over St. Raphael Academy – four teams that the Northmen could end up facing again in the postseason.

“In the past, North Smithfield teams would struggle a little bit in some of these close games, but not this team,” noted Mercier. “This year, we took care of those close games and we did what we had to do.”

The biggest win of the bunch was also one that raised plenty of eyebrows throughout the division – the Northmen’s marathon 17-16 victory over the Eagles and their ace pitcher, All-Stater Paige Concannon, on May 4 at home that took 11 innings and nearly 3½ to complete.

“That game was unbelievable,” Mercier said. “We were down in nine of the 11 innings and we came back every inning. And Paige only had three strikeouts. We hit her hard, and their coach was amazed. He told me that no one had hit her that hard.

“That last inning, we were down by three runs with two outs and the courtesy runner on second base because of the international tiebreaker rule, and we scored four runs to win the game. Lorenza (O’Donnell) hit a walkoff home run that hit the back fence in left field. It’s was one of the furthest home runs I’ve seen in a high school game.”

Speaking of O’Donnell, the Northmen’s senior shortstop, she’s in the heart of a formidable lineup that’s not only loaded with players hitting over .400 – junior Vanessa Venkataraman, the leadoff batter, is batting close to .550 – but also slugged 25 home runs, with O’Donnell, sophomore third baseman Liz Jalette, and freshman catcher Alex Ledger leading the assault.

“A lot of people outside of North Smithfield are saying, ‘Well, they have the short porch,’” added Mercier, who has also seen sophomore outfielder Alyssa Murray and freshman infielders Hope Trowbridge and Kayla Butler enjoy monster seasons. “But we’re not just hitting them here. We’ve hit them everywhere. And when they hit them, they hit them. I have some strong kids.”

On the mound, Venkataraman has been having an exceptional season, while her backup, Butler, has tossed a two-hitter and two three-hitters in a few mercy-rule victories, and defensively, the Northmen, who began the year with only three players returning to their positions from a season ago, have greatly improved over the course of the season.

“The most important thing is the defense,” said Mercier. “We don’t even work on hitting, and you could never tell that we don’t work on it – they just have a talent for hitting. You work on things that you’re weak at, and one of the things that we had been a little weak at was our defense. A lot of players were playing new positions, and we just had to put it all together. And in our last few games, they’ve played very good defense.”

Mercier hopes the good times roll into the playoffs, which for his team, begins on Thursday at 4 p.m. with a double-elimination game at home against 8th-seeded Portsmouth. The Northmen, who received a bye out of the single-elimination round, will be seeking their first berth in the D-II title game since 2005, as well as their program’s first championship.

“The playoffs are going to be up to them,” offered Mercier. “I’m just going to drive the bus and prepare them as much as I can. And they know all about the past. I had (former player) Nicole Turcotte give them a little speech the other day, saying, ‘You can’t turn it on and off. You might think you’re the best and just stroll in, but the playoffs are different.’ And it’s true. Anybody can beat anybody. In high school and college, I’ve seen it all.”