MIDDLEBURY — In a well-played duel for first place in Division II, the only mistakes on Tuesday cost the visiting Mount Abraham Union High School softball team and allowed Middlebury to claim a 1-0 victory.
The 10-5 Tigers took over the top spot in D-II, although 11-3 Lyndon is lurking in second and has an easier schedule. MUHS ends its season on Thursday at D-I power Essex.
But the Tigers can apparently do no worse than a tie for second with defending champion Otter Valley, and MUHS owns the strength of schedule tiebreaker with OV when it comes to seeding for the playoffs.
Meanwhile, there is also good news for the Eagles — No. 5 Harwood’s loss on Tuesday means the 7-6-1 Highlanders cannot catch the Eagles for the No. 4 seed even if Mount Abe drops its regular season finale to visiting Mount Mansfield on Thursday. And the Eagles could move up with a win if OV falls to Mount Anthony on Thursday.
The Vermont Principals’ Association will sort it all out and announce official seeds on Monday, and first-round games for teams that do not receive byes are set for Tuesday.
Both the Tigers and Eagles could find reasons for optimism on this past Tuesday. The Tigers played errorless ball behind the three-hit complete-game pitching of senior Lea Gipson, who walked two and struck out eight.
Senior first baseman Brooke Connor, who racked up eight putouts and had a key sacrifice as well as the only MUHS hit, said the Tigers are confident.
“Hopefully we keep it going and make it through playoffs and come home with a championship,” Connor said.
Mount Abe coach Gene Bell saw his sophomore pitcher Amber Fay toss six innings of one-hit ball, striking out eight and walking four. With a dozen athletes back from last spring’s No. 4 seed, Tuesday’s setback did not change his mind on whether the Eagles can do postseason damage.
“I’m still optimistic,” Bell said. “I’m not afraid of anybody who comes on the field, and these girls are not afraid of anybody.”
Gipson and Fay set the tone early. Gipson struck out the first two batters she faced, and retired six of the first seven, while Fay mowed down the dangerous top of the Tiger order 1-2-3 in the first.
But the only error of the game came in the second inning, and it came back to haunt the Eagles. Fay couldn’t cleanly handle Tiger DH Shanyn Leduc’s dribbler to the left of the mount, and the Tigers were in business.
Connor bunted Leduc to second, and Leduc reached third when a high swinging third strike rolled to the backstop. With two out, Fay bounced a pitch that rolled about six inches out of bounds, and the home plate umpire waved Leduc home.
The Eagles got the first hit of the game in the fourth, when Courtney Jipner dropped a bunt down the third-base line. Gipson walked Angela Volk, and there were two on and none out. The Tiger defense and Gipson rose to the occasion. Shortstop Jess Gipson fielded a grounder and threw to third baseman Theresa Huestis to force Jipner, Connor caught a foul pop, and second baseman Vickey Davio threw out the final batter at first.
In the Tiger fourth, Connor faked a bunt and poked a one-out single, and Kali Trautwein bunted her to second, but a Fay strikeout ended that threat. Fay allowed only a walk the rest of the way.
The Eagles got their leadoff batter on in both the sixth and seventh innings. In the sixth, Fay led off with a bunt single, and Jipner bunted pinch runner Jenna Thompson to second. Thompson reached third when Lea Gipson knocked down Volk’s liner and threw her out at first, and then Gipson hit the corner twice to catch cleanup hitter Allison Hayes looking.
Alyssa Charbonneau started the Eagle seventh by ripping a line single, but Gipson struck out the next two batters and got a grounder to Huestis at third to finish the nail-biter.
“It was really nerve-racking. Mount Abe is our biggest rival,” Connor said. “And it was just really intense throughout the whole thing.”
Bell said it came down to the Tigers capitalizing on their opportunity.
“Wow, it was like two evenly matched teams. They got the break, and they took advantage,” Bell said. “I think we had more runners in scoring position than they did. We couldn’t get the runners over and couldn’t get one across.”
MUHS coach Marie Eugair said defense made the difference.
“We were really tight, and we made the plays,” Eugair said.
And she praised both pitchers.
“It was a big win,” Eugair said. “Lea pitched very well today, and so did Amber. It could have gone either way.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.