By ANDY KIRKALDY
POULTNEY — For three years, talented Otter Valley Union High School softball teams have been knocking on the door of a Division II title. In 2006, four-time defending champion Lyndon slammed it shut on the Otters, and in 2007 and 2008 lower seeds knocked OV out of the tournament.
On Friday night before a big crowd of mostly Brandon-Pittsford area fans at the Poultney Recreation Center, the Otters walked through that door and evicted the Vikings in a nerve-wracking D-II final, 3-2.
Probably none of the Otters could appreciate the win more than senior second baseman Sam Hansen, who started for the OV teams that saw Lyndon rally for a 3-1 win in the 2006 final and then suffered through the two playoff upsets.
Hansen — who triggered OV’s three-run sixth inning and finished with three putouts and six assists — could hardly describe how it felt to take the title.
“It’s like the best feeling ever, especially senior year,” Hansen said. “It’s like, finally.”
A large part of OV’s success derives from senior pitcher Ashley “Big Red” Sanderson, who against the potent Viking lineup struck out seven, allowed five hits and two walks and hit a batter.
But it’s also the defense the Otters play behind her. On Friday, they threw out two runners trying to go first-to-third on sacrifice bunts, catcher Amanda Sanderson (the pitcher’s sister) picked a runner off first, and they made just one error. Ashley Sanderson said those results are the product of hard work in practice.
“We give 100 percent all the time, and I just know that they want it as badly as I do, and I know that they’re going to lay out, they’re going to do everything they can to get that ball, and they really did,” she said.
Sanderson said the Otters also succeeded because they pull together and they love the sport.
“We’re all good friends, and we have a lot of heart, and when it’s softball season, it’s softball season,” she said. “We have so much passion for it.”
Longtime coach Pattie Candon said the team’s eight seniors have played together for years, and the Otters are also motivated.
“This group has been together since they’ve been in seventh grade, and it’s always been a dream of theirs,” Candon said. “I asked them to set goals at the beginning of the year, and every single one of them put down, ‘the ’ship.’”
But the 18-1 Otters were facing another team that knows how to win. Earlier this season, OV had snapped Lyndon’s 79-game winning streak. Lyndon entered the final with an 12-2 record, and had avenged its other loss with a 5-3 semifinal win over Harwood.
For five innings, Sanderson and Lyndon’s Elizabeth Hamel (five hits, two walks, two wild pitches, five strikeouts) were locked in a scoreless duel.
In those five innings, OV had just three baserunners: third baseman Kristy Pinkham reached on a two-out bunt single in the third, first baseman Ashlee Bird laced a two-out double in the fourth, and shortstop Meghan Greeno led off the fifth with a walk.
Meanwhile, Lyndon threatened seriously. In the first, leadoff hitter Danyelle Shufelt bunted her way on, and Greer Lemnah bunted. Amanda Sanderson threw to Hansen at first to get Lemnah, and Shufelt tried for third. Hansen fired to Pinkham, who held onto the ball in a collision to tag Shufelt out.
Nykea Williams followed with one of her two hits and stole second, but Sanderson struck out Hamel to end the threat.
In the second inning, Lyndon catcher Kayla Franklin reached on OV’s only miscue, and courtesy runner Hannah Ruede stole second and was sacrificed to third. But Sanderson struck out Megan Rosengren and got Kayla Weisenger to ground out to Greeno to strand Ruede.
Sanderson retired the next eight hitters, striking out four straight batters at one point. She walked the third batter on the fifth, but sister Amanda picked her off first.
In the sixth, however, Sanderson hit No. 9 hitter Shauna Poole with none out, bringing Shufelt to the plate. She bunted, and again OV executed the double play when Poole tried to go first-to-third. This time, left fielder Jenelle Gallipo took the throw from Hansen and slapped on the tag at third base.
Candon said the Otters had worked on those plays all week in anticipation of Lyndon’s aggressive baserunning. As a coach, she was also happy to see what she had preached actually practiced so well.
“That was big,” she said. “To actually have it come through and show them it works ... That’s the cherry on the top.”
In the OV sixth Hansen led off with a walk from Hamel, who was beginning to miss a bit more often. On the next pitch, Hansen stole second. Speedy OV right fielder Michaela Harrington then bunted for a single, moving Hansen to third. Harrington bolted to second on the play, with Lyndon unwilling to risk a throw that might allow Hansen to score.
Centerfield Julie Ketcham grounded back to Hamel, and Hansen strayed a bit far off third. But Hamel elected not to make a play on her, and then it was too late to get on Ketcham, and the bases were loaded with no outs.
Hamel then bounced a wild pitch, and Hansen scored. Then Harrington came home on a passed ball, and it was 2-0. With one out, Tamara Bishop pinch-hit for Gallipo, and she singled down the left field line to make it 3-0 before Hamel worked out of trouble by getting Michelle Lefebvre to ground into a double play.
With the heart of the Lyndon order due, the final three outs did not come easily.
Williams led off with a single just out of Greeno’s reach, stole second, and moved to third when Hamel grounded out to Hansen. Franklin hit another seeing-eye single, and it was 3-1. Ruede came in to run and reached second on ground-out, and a Rosengren single made it 3-2.
At that point, Hansen visited Sanderson.
“She’s like, ‘You need to get this batter. Give it all you can,’” Sanderson said. “Sam Hansen, she’s number one for me.”
Sanderson soon whipped strike three home, and OV fans — including the students with O-T-T-E-R-S painted on their chests in blue — flooded the field to celebrate the school’s first team title since the eight-man football crown in 2005.
Sanderson talked about what it was like to celebrate the crown.
“Like I said to the team, I feel like I conquered cancer,” she said. “There’s just nothing else in the world that matters right now except this win.”