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Spartans scrap until the end against top seed

GROTON — Emotions swirled through the heart and mind of Maloney softball coach Scott Aresco.

First and foremost, he was very proud. The eighth-seeded Spartans came back from an early deficit against underclass-laden Fitch. They scratched for runs, ran the bases aggressively and laid out for anything hit their way.

The Falcons are young, yes, but also good enough to have run the table in the regular season to earn the top seed in Class L.

After Maloney came from two runs back to take a seventh-inning lead, Fitch rallied for two in the bottom of the frame Friday to score a 4-3 walk-off win in a quarterfinal at Washington Park.

Concurrent with the pride, Aresco felt frustration and deep sadness.

Frustration surfaced because the Spartans have made it as far as the quarterfinals every year since 2008, including semifinal appearances the last two seasons, but haven’t been able to break through to a title game.

Sadness because Ariele Virgulto, Lindsey Massicotte and Chelsea Schott have worn Maloney green for the last time.

Aresco fought back tears as he searched for words.

“I really like the fight in our kids over the last two games,” said Aresco, who has made it the quarterfinals in eight of the last nine seasons. “On the road, down a run, getting two in the last inning. I told them that builds character. Hopefully, they’ll take that fight into everything they do.”

Maloney (18-5) was down a run with the bottom third of the order due in the seventh. They were 0-for-6 to that point against the darting deliveries of Fitch sophomore Caroline Taber (7 innings, 6 hits, 3 walks, 9 strikeouts) and needed at least one batter to reach to get incomparable run-producer Virgulto to the plate.

Megan Guest took care of that with a triple over the head of left fielder Cassie Woods. Pitcher Paige Uliase dropped down a two-strike suicide squeeze to tie the game.

Taber snagged Mallory Vandal’s ensuing bunt attempt and turned it into a double play, but Virgulto (1-for-3, 2 runs, 2 stolen bases) did her thing. She worked a walk, stole second and continued to third on the catcher’s errant throw and scored when Saimara Cantres (2-for-2, 2 walks) smacked her second RBI hit of the day inside the left-field line.

Fitch (24-1) went to work in the home half.

Woods, hitting out of the ninth slot, rapped a leadoff single over Virgulto’s head at short. With one out and Woods on second, Jo Hobert dropped a looping single to center sending Woods to third and pulled up at second on the throw.

Aresco opted to issue Taber (1-for-2) an intentional walk to load the bases. Jayden Delaporta (2-for-4, 2 RBI) grounded a ball in the hole that Virgulto fielded on a dive, but had no play. Woods scored the tying run.

Taylor Wolfgang (2-for-4, 2 RBI) lined a single to center to end the game.

“I went out there [after Maloney’s rally] and said, ‘You guys have to have confidence in each other,’” said Arielle Cooper, Fitch’s interim coach with Kate Prpich on maternity leave. “It’s a young team. They have a mindset that’s still developing. It’s hard to be mentally tough through a lot of things and I think games like this prove how tough they are.”

Fitch took a 2-0 lead in the first inning.

All-ECC shortstop Jackie Lewis singled and took second on a fielder’s choice. Taber walked. Delaporta and Wolfgang delivered run-scoring singles, Wolfgang’s a blooper that died in front of right fielder Massicotte.

“It looks like I played the outfield too deep today,” Aresco said. “I blame myself for that. I didn’t like the dimensions of the fences. I told them to play a little deeper because you can’t let balls get over your head.”

Massicotte’s defensive work was tantamount in keeping Fitch within a run as the late innings arrived. She made diving catches against the leadoff hitters in both the fourth and fifth frames. The one in the fourth, snared in the right field alley, wound up saving the Spartans a run.

“She does that every day,” Aresco said. “She’s a gamer. These three seniors are going to be hard to replace.”

A potential Maloney rally was doused in the third when Uliase, leading off, had a 3-2 count when Taber began her windup, but didn’t complete the pitch. It should have been called ball four. It wasn’t, and Uliase instead wound up flying out after a grueling 12-pitch at-bat.

Aresco said the umpires weren’t well-schooled on the nuances of the high school game and made a few mistakes, but he didn’t feel any of the oversights were game-changing events.

Virgulto’s two stolen bases gave her 101 for her career.

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