Panthers sweep Amherst for NESCAC West title
MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College softball team clinched first place in NESCAC West on Friday, when the Panthers swept a doubleheader from second-place Amherst, 3-2 in nine innings, and 5-0.
For good measure, the Panthers added an 8-0 win in a rainy six-inning game on Saturday, pushing their record to 22-4, their league mark to 11-1, and their winning streak to a program-best 15.
Coach Kelly Bevere said a lot has gone right as the Panthers have met their first goal — reaching the NESCAC tournament for the first time since the 2004 team that finished 24-8. Only the top two teams in the eastern and western divisions of the league qualify for the event, which will be hosted by NESCAC East champion from May 6 to 8.
Bevere said the Panthers have leadership to go with talent.
“We have seven tremendous senior leaders who have all stepped up at different times during the course of the season and continue to do so day after day,” she said. “Our underclassmen have also been really solid as well. We have a great group who have remained focused on our goal of making it to NESCACs.”
Four pitchers have performed well and handled the bulk of the work — senior ace Geena Constantin, senior Ali McEnaney, and two freshmen, Elizabeth Morris and Alexa Lesenskyj. Meanwhile, senior first baseman/DH Megan Margel set a record for career hits, and five Panthers are hitting at least .400: Constantin, senior outfielders Leslie Crawford and Emily Burbridge, sophomore shortstop Jessa Hoffman, and sophomore first baseman Jessica Poracky.
This past weekend, most of the drama came in Friday’s opener. Burbridge delivered the winning hit in the ninth. After Poracky lined a double to left to lead off the inning, Burbridge followed with a towering drive that rolled up against the left-field fence and Poracky trotted home with the winning run.
Those blows ended a game that Amherst tied at 2-2 with an unlikely home run in the seventh and nearly won in the eighth.
Most of the contest was a duel between Constantin (seven innings, one earned run, nine strikeouts, four hits, three walks) and losing pitcher Theresa Kelley (eight innings, two earned runs, 11 Ks, seven hits, two walks.)
Morris (6-0) earned the win with two innings of scoreless relief, allowing one hit and fanning four.
Amherst took the lead in the third, 1-0. No. 9 hitter Jillian Masi walked and moved to third on a passed ball and an infield out. With two outs, Masi scored when the Panthers mishandled a bunt.
Middlebury evened the score in the bottom of the inning. Hoffman grounded a double down the left-field line and, after Crawford walked, scored on Margel’s single. With runners on first and third, the Panthers tried a double steal, but Crawford was out at home.
The Panthers took the lead in the sixth. Poracky reached on an infield hit off the third baseman’s glove, advancing to second when the shortstop threw the ball away. With two out, pinch-runner Emily Kraytenberg scored on Burbridge’s bloop double.
With the 6-7-8 hitters coming up and Constantin on the mound, things looked good for the Panthers. But Katie Kervick, batting .098, slugged a homer to left center, the only round-tripper Constantin has allowed this season.
Morris gave up a triple to Reilly Horan in the eighth, but stranded Horan on third. Horan might have scored on Kelley’s one-out grounder to Hoffman, but hesitated because she thought Morris might field the ball, and the chance was lost. And then Poracky and Burbridge settled matters an inning later.
In game two, the Panthers took care of business earlier, scoring one run in the fourth and two runs in each of the fifth and sixth innings.
McEnaney (8-1) earned the win with five innings of shutout ball, allowing six hits and a walk and whiffing six. Morris came on for a two-inning save, retiring six straight hitters and fanning three.
The Panther run in the fourth came when Constantin singled, followed by a Poracky double and a Jeff throwing error on the play.
In the Panther fifth, senior outfielder Nellie Wood singled, one of her three hits off Kelley, who started and lost. Hoffman tripled to score Wood. Hoffman then scored on Crawford’s grounder. In the sixth, Poracky homered and Emma Katz tripled and scored on an error.
Bevere said the Panthers clinched the title on Friday with the same formula that has worked all spring.
“The biggest key for both games was outstanding pitching and timely hitting,” she said. “We had a tough time to start the first game today, but our hitters really came through when we needed them to.”
On Saturday, Middlebury completed its first-ever three-game sweep of Amherst (13-14, 5-4 NESCAC) with the 8-0, six-inning win.
Constantin (6-1) allowed just two singles and fanned 10 to earn the complete-game win, lowering her earned-run average to 0.42. Constantin also finished three-for-three with three RBIs.
Constantin singled in Poracky in the second inning to open the scoring. Middlebury struck for four runs in the third. Margel and Crawford hit RBI doubles, and Burbridge and Constantin added run-scoring singles.
In the fifth, Poracky hit an RBI double, and Constantin plated Poracky with a single. Middlebury later added another run when Hoffman tripled and Margel singled.
At the end of the weekend, Bevere pointed to a group of seniors who have seen their win total rise from 14 as freshmen to 22 and counting this spring.
“Its been a great year so far,” she said, “and I’m so happy for this group of seniors who have really put so much into this for the last four years.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.