TAUNTON — The mystique of Shannon Smith was daunting. The reality was even more daunting.
The Milford High senior pitcher, a three-time state Gatorade Player of the Year bound for the University of Kentucky next season, struck out nine of the first 10 Central Catholic batters she faced in last night’s Division 1 semifinal battle. But the one that got away, on Leslie Moore’s second-inning single, gave the Raiders hope. Feeling gradually more comfortable at the plate, Central pieced together a sixth-inning rally that fell just short, allowing the Scarlet Hawks to escape with a 3-0 victory.
Now at 24-1, Milford will play the winner of today’s Marlboro-Agawam semifinal on Saturday at Worcester State. Central finishes its season at 20-5.
“I don’t know if we ever really did (get past Smith’s mystique),” said Raiders head coach Stacy Ciccolo. “I’ve heard so much about her, and then to see her in person ... she has such great control, I felt she had pinpoint accuracy.
“We did the best we could to prepare for her. We turned up the (pitching) machine, we hit at short distances, we tried to work on corners, but she’s very good. We just wanted to try to put the ball in play and see if we could make anything happen.”
Those circumstances were rare as Smith fanned 17 including her 1,200th strikeout of her four-year career. However, she did yield a season-high three walks which set up the Raiders for its one shot at glory.
With one out in the sixth inning, leadoff hitter Krista Maloney cracked a laser that one-hopped the center field fence, ending as a standup double. After Ally Cavanaugh sacrificed her to third, Smith issued free passes to pitcher Olivia Antczak and Leslie Moore, the third time she reached base.
With the tying run on base, Milford head coach Brian Mackey came out to the circle to settle Smith down and his words worked as she sizzled a letter-high fast ball past the next batter to quell the threat.
“Krista had a great hit. At a lot of fields that would have been (a home run),” said Ciccolo. “We loaded the bases and we did some great things but we just couldn’t score. In the end, we had to score to make this a game and we just couldn’t make that happen. (Smith) can really shut a team down when she needs to.”
Milford jumped on some first-inning Central jitters to take a lead it would not lose. Sam Bonvino got things rolling with a double, moving to third on a wild pitch and scoring on a passed ball. Rachel Levine rifled a two-bagger to right field that plated courtesy runner Sarah Jacques with a key early run.
From there, sophomore Olivia Antczak settled down and corralled the Scarlet Hawk offense. Scattering four hits over the final six innings, Antczak gave up just one more run in the fifth to keep the Raiders in contention.
“That’s happened occasionally this season,” Antczak said of her rocky start. “I think it took an inning to settle in, and then I was able to work all of my pitches.”
On her role in Central’s third trip to the Final Four, Antczak said, “I didn’t expect us to go this far, but I definitely struggled a little more this year than I did last year. Last year was kind of like smooth sailing, but this year, I had some struggles.”
Antczak indicated that high personal expectations formed that opinion and that she looked forward to improving her game this summer with the Diamond Gems out of Nashua.
“I’m definitely going to work on my rise ball a lot this summer,” Antczak said.
But there’s one accomplishment she can take out of last night’s setback. She held Smith hitless for only the second time this season, snapping her 15-game streak after she had back-to-back games with home runs.
agateHed:Milford 3, Central Catholic 0
agateText:Division 1 State Semifinal
agateText:at Taunton High School
agateText:Central Catholic (0): Krista Maloney cf 3-0-1, Ally Cavanaugh ss 2-0-0, Olivia Antczak p 2-0-0, Leslie Moore 1b 1-0-1, Karoline Leavitt 3b 3-0-0, Meg Sears rf 3-0-0, Devlin Frost c 3-0-0, Olivia Ciccarelli lf 3-0-0, Madison Borrelli 2b 2-0-0. Totals 22-0-2
agateText:Milford (3): Sam Bonvino 1b 2-0-1, Lauren Hanna 2b 2-1-1, Shannon Smith p 3-0-0, Sarah Jacques pr 0-1-0, Caroline Fairbanks 3b 3-0-1, Rachel Levine cf 3-0-1, Taylor LeBrun c 3-0-0, Allie Piergustavo dp 2-0-0, Giovanna Arcudi lf 1-0-1, Jill Powers ss 2-0-0, Lizzie Stallone rf 2-0-1. Totals 23-3-6
agateText:RBI: M — Levine, Fairbanks
agateText:WP: Smith; LP: Antczak
agateText:Central Catholic (20-5): 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 — 0
agateText:Milford (24-1): 2 0 0 0 1 0 0 — 3