Concord shakes early struggles, rides winning streak to D-I championship game

  • Spectators and Concord players react as the umpire calls Haley Munroe as she slides safely for the first run against Winnacunnet on Wednesday, May 5, 2018 at SNHU. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Winning pitcher Abigail Rochette smiles as other Concord players celebrate after the Tide softball team beat Winnacunnet Tuesday, May 5, 2018 at Southern New Hampshire University. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Saturday, June 09, 2018

Concord stumbled at the start, opening the season by losing three of its first four games. That rough patch began with a 13-1 loss in the season opener against Winnacunnet, the same team the Crimson Tide faced in Tuesday’s Division I softball semifinal.

“Coming into this game we were just looking for redemption,” Concord’s Abigail Rochette said. “Last game (against Winnacunnet) wasn’t our best and we know we didn’t play too well, so we were really looking to show them the real Concord, and I think we did today.”

They certainly did. Rochette, who was named the Gatorade New Hampshire Softball Player of the Year on Monday, struck out 11, the Tide bats and base running piled up six runs in the fifth inning and No. 3 Concord had its redemption with a 6-2 win against the second-seeded Warriors.

The Crimson Tide (17-3) will face No. 4 Spaulding (16-4) in the D-I championship on Saturday. Concord will be looking for its first title since 2009 and looking to extend its winning streak to 17.

That’s right, the Tide hasn’t lost since its 1-3 start, which also included a 15-2 loss to Londonderry.

How does a team go from dropping three of its first four games, two by double-digits, to a spot in the championship? There seem to be a couple of answers.

“We like to blame it on the weather, but I think we really just found our team and found our bond,” Rochette said. “We really got a lot closer after the third or fourth game, and then we started winning. ... I think it was the chemistry. We’re a really, really close team and we love each other a lot.”

So, who blames it on the weather?

“I’m telling you right now, it was the weather,” Concord coach Duke Sawyer said with a grin. “We didn’t get outside for practice and we just did not start well in the weather, we just didn’t do anything well. But ever since it got warm, they just took off.

“But really, I think it was just getting together and forming a team, we do have some new players this year. But it just seemed to me like the weather.”

The Tide did have a foundation of five returning starters – Rochette, catcher Abigail Corbett, first baseman Anita DiBuono, second basemen Nicole Cacciola and outfielder Haley Munroe – but it also brought up five new players to varsity to start this season.

Concord also has a mix of classes on its roster – five seniors, four juniors, four sophomores and two freshmen. And that mix extends to the starting lineup – Munroe, Cacciola, outfielder Isabelle Dunn, third baseman Jaden Morin and designated player Jillian Dusseault are seniors; Rochette and DiBuono are juniors; and Corbett, shortstop Autumn Nudd and outfielder Nicole LeBrun are sophomores.

Given that blend of players, it’s not a huge surprise the Tide took time to jell. Given the talent, and efforts, of those players, it’s not a huge surprise they ripped off 16 straight wins once they did.

“We worked so hard to have this great winning streak,” DiBuono said.

Of course having a pitcher like Rochette helps (or is maybe mandatory) with a run like Concord’s. The junior is 14-1 in the regular season with a 1.01 ERA and three no-hitters. She’s struck out 170 batters in 97⅓ innings of work and has held opponents to a .134 batting average. Rochette also has a great battery mate in Corbett, who was a First-Team D-I selection along with Rochette (D-I Pitcher of the Year) and Dunn.

“(Rochette) and Abby Corbett just work so well together calling the game,” Sawyer said. “I really can’t say enough about them.”

That trio of First-Team D-I picks also powered the offense (Rochette led the team with a .405 average and a 1.002 OPS; Dunn hit .391 with 25 RBI; Corbett hit .354 with 16 RBI) but the team gets contributions from everyone, which is exactly what happened in the semifinals. Munroe scored the game’s first run. DiBuono, Cacciola and Morin all had big hits in the critical six-run fifth inning. Nudd was on base twice and scored a run.

That kind of complete-team effort was missing for the Tide during the first four games, but it was clearly worth the wait.

“At the beginning of the season our goal wasn’t to do well in playoffs, our goal was to find our niche and find what we’re doing well,” Rochette said. “Toward the end of the season we start thinking, ‘All right, this is what we’re going to do for playoffs.’ And then … we found that thinking about playoffs is a little more nerve-wracking than anything, but we said, ‘Okay, we’re an awesome team, we have what it takes to win and we don’t have to play any better than we’re already playing.’ ”

Confidence like that can sometimes waver when a championship is on the line, but don’t expect that to happen for this Concord team on Saturday.

“This is a very loose group, there’s no problems there, believe me,” Sawyer said. “They’re very loose and they’re confident. They play well and they know it.”

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