Who is hot and who is not?
That, as much as what has happened throughout the season, provides the key for the upcoming Division 1 (formerly Class L) tournament in New Hampshire, the pairings for which will be released tomorrow.
Salem found its groove in tourney play last year and, behind the strong arm of Nora Galvin, rolled to the Class L crown — the 14th in the 26-year career of Harold Sachs, who won his 500th game last week.
Londonderry, which gave Salem all it could handle in the championship game, was also on top of its game, riding Theresa Zwart and knocking off No. 1-seed Concord on its way to the runner-up spot.
The No. 1-seed Blue Devils (18-1) and Lancers could meet in a rematch of 2010 but, with so many top teams, and ace pitchers to go with them, and with Londonderry currently in a hole on the mound, the odds are not good that it will happen.
Among the other strong contenders are Alvirne, which features Taylor Carbone in the circle, Spaulding (Paige Cormier), Concord (Kelsey Martel) and surprising Manchester Central, which may have the best defensive team of the bunch.
Salem has enjoyed success with the pitching tandem of Nicole Gubellini and Val Bauer, but Sachs won't hesitate to ride the hotter of the pair. Whatever the case, Londonderry coach Wayne MacDougall gives the Blue Devils the edge over other teams.
"Salem is the best in my estimation," said MacDougall. "They've been there so many times, they're really the standard. Right now, she (Gubellini) looks as good as anyone.
"After that, Alvirne is very dangerous because of Taylor Carbone. She's very good.. ... The question is whether they can score enough."
Earlier in the season, MacDougall liked the Lancers' chances to go far in the tournament, but a brain irregularity that has caused severe headaches and required draining medication has curtailed ace pitcher Theresa Zwart.
Add to that a slight decline in the effectiveness of pitcher Sam Corey and a slight slump at the plate against the top teams, and MacDougall is concerned.
"Our defense is as good as anyone, but we have to get our bats going and stabilize our pitching," he said.
Like MacDougall, Pinkerton Academy coach Terry Bailey also gives a slight nod to Salem, but he thinks that Concord, because of Martel and strong defense, could be the toughest challenger. He also believes that Manchester Central might not be up to the task in the postseason.
"They did knock off Salem and Concord (in the regular season), but the playoffs are different," said Bailey. "They have the defense, but I'm not sure they have enough offense."
The Astros (9-9), incidentally, could be a spoiler even without any senior starters. They were young last year as well, but they still advanced to the semifinals.
The key for Salem should be its hitting, which has not been — other than Gubellini — consistent throughout the season. But, when leadoff batter Steph Long, Sarah Frahm, Jade Morrison and Company are in the groove, the Blue Devils can be very tough to beat.
Moreover, Sachs seems to like his chances even while contending that Alvirne, Londonderry, Central, Spaulding and Central are all capable of going all the way.
"We are hitting our stride now and feel confident that we will compete at a very high level in the tourney," said Sachs. "Last year's championship run should help us in tight games.
"The key for us is to continue doing the things that got us to this point in the season — nothing more, nothing less."
Sanborn a spoiler
In its first year since moving up to Division 2 from Division 3, Sanborn has done well to stay at or slightly above .500.
The Indians probably don't have the dominating pitcher to go far in the tournament, but they could be a spoiler. When their defense is solid, they usually have enough offense, led by Kaila Nicholson and Meg Dolan, to stay with anyone.
Central looks dangerous
In Massachusetts, Central Catholic (15-3) has the potential to go far in the Division 1 tournament, thanks to the strong and impressively consistent pitching of Meg Donegan and some strong hitting, especially at the top of the order.
Brianna Martin has been batting over .500 most of the season while Brittney Hall has been over .400 and come up with a number of clutch hits. Donegan has also been consistent at the plate.
When the bottom of the Raiders' order has been hitting, like Nicole Howe and Alex Borrelli have late in the year, they're dangerous.
"We have confidence in our pitching and defense, but at times our hitting has been streaky," says Central coach Stacy Ciccolo. For us to do well in the tournament we not only have to hit, but we have to execute well in other areas of the offensive game, such as bunting and base running.
"Pitch selection is going to be key for us. If we are disciplined and swing at good pitches we will have a chance to compete."
By contrast, Methuen can be a darkhorse in Division 1 if its pitching and defense can keep foes down enough to allow its run-scoring potential, led by Courtney Bradley, Becca Caterino and RBI machine Becca Armstrong, to prevail.
The Division 1 team to beat in the North is probably Chelmsford, which — behind the pitching of Meghan Rich and Kaela DeAngelis — handed Central its first two losses of the season, followed by Acton-Boxboro, which beat the Raiders 2-0 last week.
But the Lions, in particular, are certainly beatable as Methuen proved when it played one of its best games of the season to defeat them.
Whoever wins the Division 1 North tourney will have its hands full with the winner of the South field, which includes powerhouses King Philip, the defending state champion, and Norwood.
Watch out for Whittier
By defeating Greater Lowell and Shawsheen late in the season, and handling Division 1 teams like Lowell, Andover and Methuen, Whittier (18-2) has shown that it can play with anyone and could go deep in the Division 3 tournament.
No one doubts that, with Caitlin McHugh, Kailah Goulet, Adrianna Joe, red-hot Josie Sanchez and — especially — Cassey Glode — the Methuen Tournament-champion Wildcats can put runs on the board. If the pitching of Taylor Miller and Shannon Dube remains effective, Whittier will be tough to handle. St. Mary's is also among the formidable Division 3 contenders.
In Division 2, North Reading should be a factor after turning its season around from a 3-5 start, but the Hornets need to keep their bats hot. Once-beaten Amesbury will also contend.
The Eagle-Tribune's weekly ranking of area softball teams:
1. Salem 18-1
2. Central Catholic 15-3
3. Phillips Academy 15-2
4. Londonderry 15-4
5. Whittier 18-2
Honorable mention: Methuen (12-8)
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