BRANDON — “Otters Never Give Up.” The T-shirts say it. The Otter Valley softball team lives it.
Otter Valley made its second incredible comeback in two games, beating U-32 11-10 on Tuesday in the Division II softball semifinals at Candon Field.
The Otters were trailing 10-3 heading into the bottom of the fifth and were still down 10-5 when they came to bat in the sixth.
They scored four in the sixth without a hit as the U-32 defense collapsed.
Then came the bottom of the seventh, an inning that will long be remembered by OV softball fans. Jayden Pope led it off with a sharp single to left and Shayla Phillips was hit by a pitch. Then, with one out, Bella Falco got the sacrifice bunt down, moving the runners to second and third.
Mia Politano drilled a single to right-center that scored Pope with the tying run.
Livia Bernhardt then legged out a slow roller for an infield hit and the winning RBI, Phillips scoring to touch off a wild celebration.
Comebacks have become a thing with this club. They trailed Vergennes 16-4 heading into the bottom of the seventh and fashioned an even more miraculous rally to win.
The words on those T-shirts have become more than a motto for this team.
Bernhardt said she was focused on the task at hand when she stepped in the box with the score tied.
“My team has worked so hard this year. I just said that I can’t let them down now,” Bernhardt said.
Then, when she hit the dribbler, she might have run as fast as she has ever run.
“I knew I just had to get to first. When I got there I leaped for the bag,” Bernhardt said.
When umpire Carlton Laird gave the safe sign and Phillips was nearly in the dugout, the OV players and fans were in Otter Blue Heaven.
There were plenty of players who made major contributions for the Otters.
Pitcher Morgan LaPorte was one. She was at her best over the final three innings, keeping the Raiders scoreless.
OV second baseman Falco made an outstanding defensive play in the top of the seventh. The Raiders were threatening to pad their lead with runners on first and second. Sage Winner slapped a ball hard that seemed destined for a base hit up the middle. Falco gloved the hard smash on the run and stepped on second base for an inning-ending force.
“I just knew I had to get to that ball,” Falco said.
“We have hung our hat on defense all year,” Otter Valley co-coach Kelly Trayah said.
“These comebacks are sucking the life out of us,” said OV’s other coach, Toni Poalino, obviously drained.
The jubilation in the Otters’ dugout was balanced by the disappointment in the visiting dugout.
The Raiders had hit the ball hard all day and pitcher Grace Johnson had been in control through most of the game.
But they didn’t help themselves in the field.
“We have hit the ball hard all year,” U-32 coach Mike Noyes said. “This is not the ending we wanted.”
Noyes and his players would have loved to play at Castleton University this weekend, but they are also looking forward to making another run next year. The Raiders have only one senior.
U-32 got on top with a four-run second. The Raiders came out swinging — Elizabeth Guthrie and Maia Castonguay lined base hits. Johnson reached on an error and Allie Guthrie delivered the biggest hit of the inning, a two-run double.
U-32 sent eight batters to the plate and when the inning was over, Johnson went back to the circle with a 4-0 lead.
The Otters did get one in the bottom of that inning. LaPorte was hit by a pitch and Pope chased her home with a triple down the right field line.
The Raiders extended their lead with a run in the third when Brianna Rich led off the inning with a double, took third on Elizabeth Guthrie’s ground out and raced home on Castonguay’s sacrifice fly.
The Otters sliced the lead to 5-3 in the home half of the third when Falco walked and came around to score on a wild pitch. Politano was hit by a pitch, stole second, moved to third on a wild pitch and was plated by Josie Cone’s sacrifice fly.
The word on U-32 coming into the game was that it was a balanced lineup with good hitters 1-9. That was on display in the fourth when the Raiders bunched together four hits and scored five runs, building their lead to 10-3.
Sage Winner, Castonguay, Alex Smith and Allie Guthrie had hits in the frame.
But lightning can strike twice and it did. That improbable comeback against the Commodores in the quarterfinals was replicated.
It took some stellar late-game pitching by LaPorte to slam the door on the hard-hitting Raiders, some tight defense of which Falco’s play was the centerpiece, and timely hitting in the seventh.
Allie Guthrie led U-32’s 11-hit attack with three base hits. Faith Hall and Castonguay had two each.
Pope led the Otters at the plate with three hits including the RBI triple and Politano had two hits, scored three runs and knocked in another.
Trying to explain the two amazing comebacks, Bernhardt said, “It shows how much love our team has for the game.”
The No. 6 Raiders finish the season at 9-7 and look forward to taking another step or two next year.
The No. 2 Raiders are off to the biggest game of all, the state championship game against No. 1 Mount Abraham, a team the Otters defeated during the season.