PROVIDENCE — St. Raphael Academy head coach Ron Labree had heard from a select group of people that his troops had coasted through their regular season because they played in a less-than-strong Division II-West.
Those same naysayers seemed to infer that the lone “real” team to be concerned about was North Providence.
Labree mentioned that to his girls before their playoff debut, and – excepting one hiccup – they've been on a roll ever since.
That surge continued on Wednesday afternoon, when the gritty Saints took advantage of three East Greenwich miscues and a bases-clearing bloop double by freshman Haley Mitsmenn in an eight-run fourth inning. They later dismantled the Avengers, 9-2, in the R.I. Division II Tournament losers' bracket final at Rhode Island College.
With the triumph, Labree and Co. earned a berth in the state D-II championship game against North Providence at this same complex at 1 p.m., Saturday. Should SRA (22-3 overall) claim a win, it would face the Cougars in a winner-take-all tilt at a time and date still to be determined.
“I told the kids that before the tournament started; I said, 'Listen, there are people out there who don't think you can hang with these other teams (who qualified),'” he indicated. “When you tell this team that, it's going to fuel the fire.
“Now we have two teams from II-West battling for the title,” he added with a grin. “This couldn't feel any better.”
In this one, sophomore Kaylee Sylvestre – who had started slowly – scattered six hits and four walks with three whiffs.
Offensively, her batterymate Mitsmenn finished 1-for-4 with three RBI and a run scored, while fellow freshmen Kamryn Labree (2-for-3, double, RBI, two runs) and Lauren Taylor (1-for-2, double, RBI, run) helped out admirably.
For the Avengers, senior starter Lauren Duvall manufactured a solid outing; she allowed seven hits and all nine runs, yet only one was earned. She also walked four and fanned one.
Labree had a simple message for his second-seeded contingent (from II-West) prior to taking the diamond opposite the South's third-ranked East Greenwich: “You're going against the defending state champions, but you know what? We just want you to go out there and have fun, and whatever happens, happens. I just want you to shut down their team speed because they can fly, and play our game.”
SRA more than obliged, though it took a while.
The contest began pretty much like a chess match, with each team seemingly feeling each other out, though East Greenwich threatened first.
In the top half of the second, Sylvestre yielded freshman Cora Geunes a one-out walk, then – with two down – issued junior Nos. 8 and 9 batters Rachel Gammons and Brooke Andreozzi a pair of free bags to load them up.
The righthander, however, shut down any hopes for a rally by whiffing junior Hannah Anderson.
Duvall looked superb through the first three frames, retiring eight of nine batters after Sylvestre had led off the Saints' first with a single to center.
Junior Kyra Benavent opened the third with a bad-hop single to left, one that jumped over junior shortstop Hayley Microulis' glove, and she took second on Sylvestre's wild delivery, but nothing came of it.
All that changed in the bottom of the fourth, when the Saints sent a dozen to the plate.
The younger Labree started the flurry with a double to the right-center gap; when Mitsmenn laid down an obvious sacrifice bunt try, however, Duvall threw wildly to first, allowing Labree to scamper home and Mitsmenn to second.
Sophomore Alexis Vieira then reached on an infield miscue, one that plated Mitsmenn, and senior Arianna Haddock belted a base hit to center. Her classmate, Lauren Sequin, then ripped a lined single to left, and outfielder Rachel Gammons rifled an errant throw to the plate, allowing Vieira to score and make it 3-0.
Another frosh, Lauren Taylor, followed with a two-bagger to center to plate Haddock, and sophomore Ashley Simmons – hitting ninth – put down a bunt that was fielded by second baseman Jackie DeFusco.
The only problem: Sequin beat the throw to the plate, then stole second.
Duvall chose to intentionally walk Labree to juice the bags, and that's when Mitsmenn knocked her bloop, two-out double to center to give the Saints the 8-0 cushion.
“The underclassmen came up big, that's for sure,” Coach Labree grinned afterward. “It started with Kamryn, and Haley reached on the error and everything snowballed; it just became contagious. We've been waiting for an inning like that. That's something we haven't had in at least a month.
“We also were able to take advantage of their errors,” he added. “We just ran hard and tried to take the extra base when we could. After that, the bats got hot. Like I said, we've been waiting for it.”
East Greenwich, though, didn't need long to answer. In the top of the fifth, Andreozzi and Anderson both reached on bunt singles, and sophomore Sarah Gavin drove in the former with a hit to left-center. Anderson tagged to third on Duvall's fly to center, then scored when Jackie DeFusco punched a sacrifice fly to the same field.
The Avengers seemed poised to cut into their deficit further when Geunes and Jackie Passaretti both reached on infield miscues, then moved into scoring position on Andreozzi's sacrifice bunt. Sylvestre, however, forced Anderson to foul out to the catcher Mitsmenn to close it.
SRA added an insurance run in the sixth after Sylvestre drew a one-out walk, hustled to second on a wild pitch and raced home on Labree's hit to center. (She immediately was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double).
Gavin drilled Sylvestre's opening pitch in the seventh up the middle, and she took second on DeFusco's one-out walk, but the Saints' sophomore got Benavent to ground to short and Geunes to foul to first to end it.
“This feels great!” Sylvestre said. “I got a little upset in the second (after loading the bags with three walks); I was either way up high or too low, but – after we got out of it – Coach told me to relax and calm down. I didn't made any adjustments, really.
“(Coach Labree) just told me, 'Hey, you're a really good pitcher. There's nobody better than you,' and that relaxed me,” she continued. “I throw six or seven pitches, but I thought my curve was on, and I was going inside and outside to keep them off-balance. I guess it worked.”
Following the post-game handshakes, assistant Kevin Shea approached the elder Labree, grinned and offered a high-five salute while saying, “Attaboy, Coach! Nice job!”
Next up for SRA is North Providence, the top seed from II-West.
“We lost to them at their place, Notte Park, 5-0, and their pitcher, Lindsay Cabhral, was unbelievable,” Labree noted. “They came to us a couple of weeks ago and we allowed a run in the first, held them close the rest of the way but lost, 1-0. We just couldn't get our bats going.
“Hopefully, after this one, we'll continue our hot bats.”