HOLDEN — For those who have tried and failed to hit Milford High junior ace Shannon Smith , sometimes the only thing left to do is laugh.
Wachusett Regional softball player Ari Heppenstall could only chuckle and shake her head as she walked back to the dugout after striking out against Smith last week.
It was one of 13 punchouts for the hard-throwing righthander in a 15-0, five-inning win.
“She throws so fast that you don't even want to think when you're up there because it only makes it worse,” Heppenstall said. “Just touching the ball against her is big.”
Smith has made a season out of rendering opposing batters helpless. Armed with a fastball that reaches the high 60s, pinpoint control and a mastery of her off-speed pitches, she has been the most dominant softball pitcher in Division 1.
In 18 games covering 123 innings, Smith amassed 277 strikeouts, allowing just 16 hits and 18 walks. She threw two perfect games (one in a mercy-rule shortened 20-0 win over North Middlesex Regional) and six no-hitters. Not a single earned run crossed the plate against Milford (19-0) with Smith in the circle this spring.
“She has that mentality that ‘I'm out here to win for my team, but I'm here to win 21 individual battles throughout the game,’ ” said Milford coach Brian Macchi . “She takes each battle, she knows we have three every inning, and hopes that she's going to win every one.”
Smith, a junior, feels as strong as ever as she leads Milford into the MIAA postseason tournament for the third straight year. The Scarlet Hawks lost in the state final her freshman year, and lost in the state semis last season against Amherst.
Equipped now with the confidence of an upperclassman, the University of Kentucky recruit is determined to help secure what has eluded Milford the last two seasons: a state championship.
“I feel like this year I'm more able to handle those moments,” Smith said of her tournament experiences. “I'm not a freshman anymore. Mentally I've been putting myself in those situations since I was a little kid, and now it feels like I've been there a million times before.”
More aces to watch
There are four other area pitchers with the ability to be game-changers in the state softball tournament.
■ Meghan Rico , King Philip Regional’s senior righty, is committed to George Washington University.
By the numbers: 12-2, 188 strikeouts, 40 walks, 99 innings, 0.71 ERA for the two-time defending Division 1 champs
Arsenal: Fastball (low 60s), rise, curveball, screwball, changeup, drop
From the other dugout: “The beginning of her motion, it's a little different than other pitchers where she's kind of bending forward and coming back and going into it . . . She has the combination of speed, control and movement that you don't see too often. Then you throw that in with her motion and it's a difficult challenge to face her’’ — Brian Macchi, Milford High coach.
Coach’s view: “She's clearly been a pitcher that has been in control. We went on for a stretch where we went 67 innings without allowing a run . . . she's growing more comfortable with the defense behind her, and her pitching is reflecting the confidence she has in her ability. Her walks are up from last year, but if you look at it throughout the season, her walks have become fewer and fewer as the season has gone on” — Jim Leonard , King Philip coach.
Tournament challenge: “I definitely thrive on the energy of these games. I get nervous, but I think it's good to get nervous. I think if you're not it's a little weird. My catcher (senior Olivia Godin) calms me down really, really well. I focus on throwing to her and nothing else going on in the game” — Rico.
■ Sarah Ropiak , a senior righty at Acton-Boxborough Regional, is heading to Brown University.
By the numbers: 9-4, 134 strikeouts, 34 hits, 83 innings, 0.59 ERA for the Division 1 Colonials
Arsenal: Fastball (around 60), drop, changeup, curveball, rise, screwball
From the other dugout: “She has great speed on her fastball, but she's also a smart pitcher . . . With her you have to jump on fastballs that are strikes or else you'll be jumping around the box like a lunatic” — John MacIsaac , Waltham High coach.
Coach’s view: “Sarah is going to throw well every time she's in the circle because she works hard and has put so much time into her craft. A lot of how we do will depend on, is our defense going to perform behind her? Are they going to score runs?” — Acton-Boxborough coach Mary Matthews.
Tournament challenge: “I love it. You try to tell yourself every game is as important in the regular season, but nothing that can compare to that situation and the demand for how focused you have to be in that moment. I tend to block almost everything out. Even my teammates. They ask if I can hear them in the field and I tell them I can't” — Ropiak.
■ Jurnee Ware is a junior lefty at Hudson High.
By the numbers: 14-3, 174 strikeouts, 119 innings, 1.22 ERA for Division 2 Hawks
Arsenal: Fastball (high 50s), changeup, curveball, drop, rise, screwball
From the other dugout: “If you get in a hole against her you're in trouble because she can throw any number of pitches with two strikes and throw them with confidence. You might think a rise is coming, she throws a changeup. We don't see many pitchers that can throw like her during the course of the season” — Steve Kendall , Nashoba Regional coach.
Coach’s view: “At the beginning of the year, her shoulder was a little sore, but she's worked that out. She hasn't hit any lulls at all during the season. She's been pitching really well. She's got better movement on her curve and her screw, and her fastball seems to be getting faster’’ — Steve Martin , Hudson coach.
Tournament challenge: “I definitely want my teammates to get pumped up. It's all about wanting it right now. If you don't want it you're not gonna get it. It's definitely our goal to win it all. We don't want to end up where we were last year.” — Ware
■ Megan Cook is Bellingham High’s sophomore righty.
By the numbers: 13-1, 145 strikeouts, 35 walks, 97 innings, 0.69 ERA for Division 2 Blackhawks
Arsenal: Fastball (60), change, screwball, drop-curve
From the other dugout: “She's the real deal. She's not quite on a level all her own, but she's close in the Tri-Valley League. She's got zip on her fastball, and you can see she has a really nice rapport with her catcher,’’ sophomore Rachel Kuhlman . “They'll be fun to watch the next couple years.” — Travis Taliaferro , Medfield High coach
Coach’s view: “She keeps herself in shape 12 months a year so she's pretty strong here at the end of the season, and hopefully she'll be able to keep that up into the tournament.” — Dennis Baker , Bellingham High coach
Tournament challenge: “It's important to keep an even keel. I don't want to get too high or too low. I think I know what to expect a little bit more, and I'm a little bit more relaxed about how things are going to play out after last year.” — Cook
Back in the mix
In his first year as Medfield’s softball coach, Taliaferro has the Warriors back in the tournament for the first time since 2006.
“What makes this really sweet for me and the girls is I was the middle school coach when the seniors were in middle school,” he said. “We always felt it would be nice to be reunited. Even if it's only one year, it's a nice feeling.”
Phil Perry can be reached at email@example.com.