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John Stark softball team pulls out semifinal victory in bottom of 10th

  • John Stark players pile on each other in celebration following the Division II softball semifinal at Southern New Hampshire University on Wednesday, June 11, 2014.

    John Stark players pile on each other in celebration following the Division II softball semifinal at Southern New Hampshire University on Wednesday, June 11, 2014. Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • John Stark's Jocelyn Dimond reaches up for a catch in the game against ConVal in the Division IV softball semifinal at Southern New Hampshire University on Wednesday, June 11, 2014.

    John Stark's Jocelyn Dimond reaches up for a catch in the game against ConVal in the Division IV softball semifinal at Southern New Hampshire University on Wednesday, June 11, 2014. Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • John Stark players pile on each other in celebration following the Division II softball semifinal at Southern New Hampshire University on Wednesday, June 11, 2014.
  • John Stark's Jocelyn Dimond reaches up for a catch in the game against ConVal in the Division IV softball semifinal at Southern New Hampshire University on Wednesday, June 11, 2014.

MANCHESTER – After giving up the go-ahead run in the top of 10th inning yesterday to defending state champion Con-Val, the John Stark softball team felt some understandable nerves. But the Generals never lost faith.

“We kind of had our rally caps on and we kind of knew something magical was going to happen,” Stark senior Lindsey Turner said. “Two of our girls on the team lost their mother, so we had her in our head for motivation. We knew we could do it, we just had to stay positive the whole time.”

That motivation and positivity turned into a pair of runs and a 4-3 Division II semifinal win for the No. 7 Generals (14-5). Stark will now play in the first softball state championship in school history on Saturday against top-ranked Coe-Brown.

“I know for the seniors, most of us were crying, or at least had tears in our eyes, and we haven’t even won anything yet,” Stark’s Carly Cook said. “But just the fact that we’re going to the championship is such a big deal to us.”

Like Turner, Cook mentioned the extra motivation for her team, and touched the patch on her left sleeve as she did. The patch is a pink ribbon dedicated to the memory of Joan Kilar, mother of Stark juniors Jackie and Jillian Kilar. Joan passed away on Feb. 23 after a battle with breast cancer.

“We dedicated our season to Mrs. Kilar, so that’s given us some extra drive,” Cook said. “We all just want to do it for her and I think that set the tone for our season.”

The Generals may have gotten some help from above in that 10th inning. Jackie Kilar was hit by a pitch to start the frame, Kendall Keim followed with a single to center, and Jillian Kilar (3-for-5, triple, RBI, run) came through with another single to plate her twin sister and move Keim to third. That brought up Turner, who flared the game-winning hit down the left-field line. Except it didn’t look like a hit when it left her bat.

“I thought it was foul, honestly,” Turner said. “I looked really quick and I couldn’t believe it.”

Whatever caused the ball to land just inside the foul line at Southern New Hampshire University’s softball field, it was enough to send Keim home with the deciding run. Maybe it was something from above, maybe it was a gust of the light rain that was falling throughout the game, or maybe it was the new bat in Turner’s hands.

“I had been using one bat the whole game and that last at-bat I switched it up for some reason and just changed everything,” said Turner, who was also the winning pitcher. “I don’t know what it was, but it was some kind of mojo thing.”

The Generals needed all the mojo they could get because No. 14 Con-Val (8-11) had its own magic working this postseason. The Cougars went just 6-10 in the regular season, which included a 14-0 loss to Stark back on May 2. But Con-Val rediscovered its form from last year once the playoffs started, upsetting No. 3 Souhegan and No. 6 Plymouth on its way to the semifinals.

“We knew it was going to be a tough game and we kept saying they’re the defending state champs and they’re here for a reason,” Cook said. “When we played them in the regular season it didn’t look like they were in it as much as they were today. They looked like a whole new team.”

The Generals opened the scoring in the second inning when Jillian Kilar tripled and came home on a bunt from Turner. That 1-0 lead stood through four innings as Turner (10 innings, six strikeouts, no walks, nine hits) and the Stark defense – led by Cook in center field, Jackie Kilar at short and Jocelyn Dimond at second – held the Cougars in check.

Con-Val eventually tied things in fifth when Courtney Fisher scored on a sacrifice fly from JoEllen Racicot, but the Generals regained their one-run lead in the bottom half of the inning when a single from Cook plated Dimond. The back-and-forth continued in the top of the sixth when Emmasae Hallen (2-for-4) drove in Brittani Doyle to make it 2-2.

Con-Val’s Fisher (10 innings, 13 strikeouts, three walks, three hit batters, eight hits) made sure it stayed tied as she struck out the Generals in order in the sixth and retired 13 of the 16 batters she faced in innings six through nine.

“I thought both pitchers battled,” Stark Coach Rick Sweeney said. “I thought they had their ups and downs during the game as well, but they never quit, neither one of them.”

Those dueling pitchers, the game’s stakes and the tie score created more than a touch of intensity as the extra innings unfolded.

“When they came off the field after some of the late at-bats some of the girls were having trouble breathing,” Sweeney said. “It was just so intense. They all knew how much it meant.”

The Cougars broke through the tension in the top of the 10th, when Racicot, who made a racing catch in right field to end the ninth, scored on a double from Taylor Guay. That gave Con-Val its first lead of the game and generated even more anxiety for the Generals.

“I know I was shaking out in center field and everybody was nervous,” Cook said. “But then we came into the dugout everybody knew right away that we’re still in it. We were nervous, but our heads were in it. Even if we had only got one run we knew we could have come back in the 11th inning to do more.”

Thanks to some clutch hits, a different bat and heart-felt motivation, the Generals didn’t need that 11th inning.

“There’s some inspiration here,” Sweeney said. “The power of the ribbon.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at tosullivan@cmonitor.com or 369-3341 or on Twittter @timosullivan20.)

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