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Wilton-Lyndeborough girls stun unbeaten Epping for state title

PLYMOUTH – There’s a time-tested sports adage which states that “If you want to be the best you need to beat the best.”

And that old saw was never more true than it was for the Wilton-Lyndeborough softball squad as it strode into the Division IV championship game against the undefeated defending state champions from Epping at Plymouth State University on Saturday afternoon.

Knowing full well that head coach Denny Claire – the Wilton leader since way back in 1988 – was intent on calling it quits after this huge contest, the Warriors had to try to find a way past an Epping crew which had gone a perfect 18-0 in its own hunt for the D-4 crown.

Well, it took an unbelievable amount of effort, some superb plays, a modicum of luck, and 12 full innings, but in the end the Warriors did in fact best that tough opponent by a 6-5 score.

Wilton plated what proved to be the winning run in the top half of the 12th on a hit and an Epping error, and it then hung on tight to register the three outs it required to take the title.

When asked if he was hedging any on his decision to complete his coaching career in the wake of the draining victory, the beloved coach responded, “Are you kidding me? I’m lucky I’m still

breathing!”

The two contingents battled like champions the entire way, with talented pitchers Lexi Balam of Wilton and Epping star Isabella Snyder both going the distance.

Wilton had an exceptional chance to score early in the top half of the first frame when it placed runners on second and third – results of hits from Balam and Rachel Christino – with just one out. But both runners wound up stranded on their bases.

And that failure to score stung the locals right away when, in the bottom of the inning a single followed by a triple by Epping pitcher Snyder made it a 1-0 game. But the Warriors’ defense glittered in ending the frame with a double play.

The Blue Devils added a second run in the latter half of the fourth when a single was followed by a double, but Wilton pitcher Balam and her defense allowed no more in that inning.

However, Epping hurler Snyder – the 2019 D-4 Pitcher of the Year – showed why she won that honor by getting tougher and tougher as the innings swept by.

Things finally began looking up for the locals in the top of the sixth when Janel Bachand led off with a triple to center and Christino immediately drove her home with a single to left. But Snyder regained control and kept the score at 2-1 for the time being at least.

The defending state champs looked poised to add to their lead in the bottom of that frame when they got runners on second and third with one out.

But the Wilton defense rose to the challenge again and spun a 5-2-3 double play to kill the threat.

Down to their final three outs, the Warriors got the tying run on base with one out when Abby Dowling laced a single up the middle. Madison Raymond then reached on a popped-up bunt toward first which Epping couldn’t handle, and the Wilton fans were on their feet with Balam in the box. And the Warriors’ star knotted the score with a sizzling single to center which plated

Dowling.

However, the Blue Devils then pulled off a double play which ended the frame with the score knotted at 2-2.

Epping put a runner on base in the latter half of the seventh but proved unable to score, and it was on to extra innings.

And Wilton went to work on offense in earnest to start the eighth, with Christino reaching on an error and Skelly slapping a single. But the scoring surge stopped as the Blue Devils bagged the next three outs.

The Blue Devils then heightened the drama still further with one out in the bottom of that inning when Laura Duguie slammed a triple to right field. Wilton coach Claire then elected to intentionally walk the next two batters to fill the bags and create the possibility of a force at every base. And the move paid off with Balam getting a strikeout for out number two and catching a soft liner back to her to evaporate the threat.

Wilton then raised an offensive threat itself in the top of the ninth and appeared to have made good on collecting the state title.

Bachand bashed a double which plated Raymond, Christino laced a sacrifice fly which scored Balam, and Bachand came home on a double by Skelly to make the score 5-2.

But Epping came flying back to score three runs on three hits – leaving the bases loaded for a second straight inning and in the same manner – in the bottom of the inning to leave the score knotted at 5-5.

The next resounding opportunity to end it came in the top of the 12th for Wilton when Christino led off with a double down the left field line. She moved to third on a one-out fly and score on a dropped ball in left field on a solid smack by Lane. So the Warriors headed into the bottom of the 12th seeking three outs and holding a 6-5 advantage.

Epping knocked one hit in the latter half of the 12th but left that runner stranded, and Wilton and its throng of spirited fans rolled into full celebration mode.

“We just wouldn’t give up, and neither would they,” said Claire. “When we tied them I think it effected them because they’re not used to being in a situation like that. But they’re a great team.”

Wilton bashed out some 16 hits and received multiple ones from Balam (three singles), Bachand (a single, a double, and a triple), Christino (two singles and a double), Skelly (a single and a double), and Raymond (two

singles).

Epping tallied 14 hits against the fiery Balam, who got the huge pitching win by striking out five batters, walking four (all intentionally), and soldiering on in leading her tough title-winning troop.

The second-seeded Warriors reached the tourney finals for longtime coach Claire by disposing of third-ranked Profile in a 14-6 blowout in the semifinals two days earlier on that same PSU diamond. They had qualified for that big game by knocking off number seven Sunapee by a 10-2 tally in quarterfinal play.

Unbeaten Epping disposed of number nine Colebrook in the quarters and fourth-seeded Woodsville in the semis – both blowouts – after completing its regular season at a glittering 16-0.

Wilton and Epping did not meet up during the regular season, which the Warriors completed with a 14-2 record and an 8-1 mark in their last nine contests.

The Warriors rolled into Saturday play having won eight state championships in program history, and played in a slew of state title games.

But the last time they were in one of those was 2014, when they won a crown. Claire was at the helm for the title victories in 1992, 1996, 1998, 2007, 2008, 2012, and 2014.

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