Hopkinton stifles Belmont, 8-0, to reach D-III softball championship

  • Hopkinton pitcher Megan Kimball-Rhines celebrates with her teammates after they defeated Belmont, 8-0, at Chase Field in Plymouth on Thursday, June 6, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Hopkinton pitcher Megan Kimball-Rhines throws a pitch against Belmont at Chase Field on Thursday, June 6, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Hopkinton softball players celebrate after they defeated Belmont, 8-0, on Thursday, June 6, 2019 at Chase Field at Plymouth State University. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Belmont shortstop Julianna Estremera bobbles the ball during the second inning against Hopkinton at Chase Field at Plymouth State University on Thursday, June 6, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/6/2019 10:26:50 PM

PLYMOUTH – When the Hopkinton softball team turned a double play to come within one out of the Division III championship, sophomore pitcher Megan Kimball-Rhines immediately turned around to give credit to her shortstop.

Kimball-Rhines was the star, tossing a complete-game two-hitter and going 3-for-4 at the plate with two RBI, but it was the combined effort of a young roster that led No. 7 Hopkinton (15-4) to an 8-0 victory over No. 6 Belmont (15-4) at Plymouth State University’s Chase Field, preventing the Raiders from reaching the championship in back-to-back seasons.

The Hawks will play No. 4 Campbell (16-3) in the D-III championship on Saturday at Chase Field at 2 p.m.

Hopkinton scored three runs in the fourth inning and four in the sixth, but the young Hawks played near-flawless defense, committing just one error, allowing two hits and four baserunners, and not allowing more than four Belmont at-bats in a single frame.

“We’ve worked hard on our defense this year,” Hopkinton coach Dan Meserve said. “We have two very good pitchers, but neither is a strikeout pitcher. They pitch for contact. We stress this a lot.”

In addition to Kimball-Rhines, fellow sophomores Brooke Carlson and Maurgan McGrath started in center field and left field, respectively, while freshmen Kally Murdough (second base), Julia Baer (shortstop) and Maddy Follansbee (third base) are all starters in the infield.

“I wouldn’t be able to do it without them,” said Kimball-Rhines, who struck out four Raiders in a complete-game effort. “We have a freshman infield and they’ve been behind my back from day one. I’ve never felt more love and connection to a team than I do to this one.”

Despite the 8-0 final, it was 1-0 through four innings and was a close game reminiscent of Belmont’s 8-7 extra-inning victory on May 15.

A passed ball on Belmont’s leadoff hitter, Lizzie Fleming, gave the Raiders a baserunner early, but the Hawks followed with three straight 1-2-3 innings and retired the next 13 batters.

Kimball-Rhines struck out three during that stretch and also doubled in the first inning, putting Murdough (3-for-4, two runs, RBI) on third base, and junior Megan Blanchette (2-for-4, two RBI) doubled Murdough home in the next at-bat for a 1-0 Hopkinton lead.

“When heads start to get a little floaty … we sort of had to reel it in and get everybody back together, knowing that this basically is a championship game,” Kimball-Rhines said. “Even though we’ve never done it before, this is a championship game and this is what we’ve been working towards for so long, so we have to keep that mindset throughout the game.”

Hopkinton showed that mindset in a big way in the fifth inning, with senior Lauren Secore hitting a leadoff single, advancing on a McGrath sacrifice bunt and Murdough single, and scoring on a double steal to put the Hawks up, 2-0.

Kimball-Rhines drove home Murdough on a single, advanced to second on an error and scored on Blanchette’s second double of the game, putting Hopkinton up, 4-0, through five.

“It’s kind of funny, Hopkinton hasn’t been in a (softball) championship in (21) years,” said Meserve, “but these guys, I know they’re young, but they all play soccer, which made it to a championship. They play field hockey, which made it to the championship. They play basketball which last year made it to a championship. With the 15 girls on the team, they have 24 final four or championship appearances between them, so yes, it’s a different one, but they’ve been here before (in other sports). It’s a mature, young group.”

Belmont showed signs of life in the bottom of the fifth when pinch-hitter Kelley Allen put a ball in play with a nice hit down the third-base line and reached first on an error, but McGrath made a running catch in left field and Murdough caught a high fly in shallow right to end the inning.

Not only did Hopkinton shut down Belmont’s attempts at a rally, but added to the lead in the sixth, getting a walk from Carlson, before McGrath reached on an error, and Secore and Murdough singled, making the score 7-0 with just one out – the one out being a fielder’s choice from Baer that plated Murdough. Kimball-Rhines drove home Baer on a fielder’s choice for Hopkinton’s eighth run.

“Hopkinton outplayed us,” Belmont head coach Bill Clary said. “They forced us to make some errors in the field. We didn’t hit the ball and if you don’t put runners on base you aren’t going to win a game. When you play from behind you try to do some things you wouldn’t normally do.”

Sophomore Raven Gates gave Belmont its first hit of the game to lead off the bottom of the seventh, but Baer caught a hard-hit line drive from Becca Fleming and made a spectacular throw to catch Gates at first base for a double play.

Allen, who had a pair of strikeouts and allowed just two hits in two innings of relief, connected for a double in the next at-bat, but Kimball-Rhines struck out Belmont starting pitcher Morgan Hall to end the game.

“Megan is awesome,” Meserve said of Kimball-Rhines. “When she’s on, she’s tough. She spots the ball well. Dan Blanchette our assistant coach does an awesome job calling the pitches. She’s a gamer.”

Despite the tough end to the season, Clary still had plenty of positive things to say about his squad.

“I just said to the seniors, I pulled them aside and said, ‘You four have done something that no other seniors in the program have done,’ ” Clary said. “They’ve gone to the final four and the finals in back-to-back years. Last year beating Campbell in the quarterfinals was a huge upset. Knocking off No. 3 White Mountains off (in the quarterfinals) this year was a huge upset. The team we have with very little depth, only 11 girls on the roster, doesn’t give us a lot of flexibility and today some of that showed. We were beat by a very good team, but we are also a very good team and I’m happy to be coming back.”

As for Meserve and the Hawks, they are eager to end their first season back in D-III – following a short stint in D-IV – with a championship.

Their opponents, No. 4 Campbell, won its semifinal in a similar fashion, knocking off top-seeded Berlin, 7-0.

“I’m just thrilled for these girls,” Meserve said. “They played so hard. Belmont is a good team. We played them before, they beat us in extra innings. I felt like we had one more year to go, but they came to play.”

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