Ashley Higgins sat in the front seat of her gold Toyota Camry in the parking lot at Holliston High School, nearly ready to put her senior season behind her. She unlaced one cleat, then the other, then an ankle brace, and suddenly she realized: These were things she would never do again.
She cried at the thought.
The Panthers had just dropped their first-round Division 2 South tournament game to Dedham, 2-1, and Higgins knew her high school softball career was over.
“I’ve put so much time and effort into this sport since the second grade,” said Higgins, who hit .410 as the team’s starting shortstop this season. “It’s been such a part of my life that I almost didn’t even realize it was going to end. Quite a journey to be over.”
June can be a cruel month for high school baseball and softball players all over the state, especially seniors. A handful will go on to play in college, but most will not. And the nature of the MIAA's single-game elimination playoff tournament is such that careers can come to a close with little warning, much as they did for Higgins and her senior teammates, Molly Blake and Lauren Lisak .
Higgins and Blake — cocaptains, four-year varsity players and Tri-Valley League second team all-stars this season — likely could have found opportunities to play next year, but they have chosen to attend schools with Division 1 softball programs and will focus on academics.
That doesn't mean it will be easy for them to leave behind the game they love.
“We were at a graduation party a few days after our last game,” said Holliston coach Mark Hernandez , who led the Panthers to a 15-5 season. “Molly came up to me and asked, ‘Can we have practice tomorrow?’
“It wasn’t so much the fact that we lost that bothered them,” Hernandez added. “It was that it was over, that they couldn’t come out the next day and have practice.”
For the first time since they were in the fourth grade, neither Blake nor Higgins will spend the summer playing organized softball. They began playing together on youth teams in Holliston before advancing to more competitive summer club teams as accomplished high school players.
Blake, Holliston’s right-handed ace, worked to hone her craft nearly year-round. Other than when she played field hockey in the fall, she could often be found working on her pitching mechanics with her father, Will . Now that she is finished, she’s not sure what will fill the void.
“It’s so weird,” Blake said. “I wake up and I don’t know what to do. I’ve been running every day to get some exercise, get my mind off of things. I’m just trying to take up something else that will take up time in the day. Maybe I’ll start to love running.”
Already, Blake and Higgins have started to long for softball’s little details. They know that in college — Blake is headed to Providence College, Higgins will attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst – they will be hard-pressed to hear the sound of a ball slapping a mitt, or smell the unique stench of well-worn batting gloves.
But being part of a team is what they’ll miss most.
“I didn’t want to say goodbye,” Higgins said. “We had such a tight-knit group this year. Everyone was so supportive. We all had each other’s backs. After we lost, I told my teammates how proud I was of them, and how they have to keep the program’s reputation going. It was really tough.”
Moments after their final game, the Holliston seniors approached each of their younger teammates one by one on the third base line for a word and a tearful hug farewell. Blake stopped when she got to the team’s two freshmen, Erica Linnell and Heather Leger .
“I told them to enjoy it,” Blake said. “Don’t rush it because it’s going to go by way faster than you can ever imagine.”
Tigers show fighting spirit
Joe Siciliano never saw it coming.
His Newton North High baseball squad had to win its last two regular-season games just to make the tournament. How could their coach know that the Tigers would win three games when they got there, getting all the way to the Division 1 North sectional semifinals?
“You just can’t explain it,” Siciliano said last week before his team’s game against Acton-Boxborough. “I can’t figure it out. The key concept is that you got to battle, and I think our kids have done that.”
In the preliminary round, the 22d-seed Tigers (13-10) scored 10 runs in the final four innings to beat No. 11 Lexington, 10-7. Then senior Tommy Clarke notched the game-winning RBI in the ninth inning and earned a save in Newton North’s win in the next round over sixth-seeded Billerica, 5-4. In the quarterfinals, Siciliano’s team beat third-seeded St. John’s Prep, 7-4, after scoring five times in the top of the ninth.
“You couldn’t be prouder. You couldn’t be prouder,” said Siciliano. “They’re a team that has come together. Our seniors are the glue and our young kids are really performing.”
Siciliano credited the team’s Bay State Conference schedule for making the Tigers tournament-ready. A loss against Dedham in early May helped show his squad that records mean nothing when two teams square off.
“That was the biggest game we had this year, the one we learned the most from,” Siciliano said. “They had a losing record and they beat us, 1-0. It just goes to show in baseball, on any given day. It just goes to show, you never know.”
Here and there
Milford High’s junior righty pitcher Shannon Smith was named the Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year for softball after leading her team to an undefeated regular season. She also had won the award as a freshman. . . Lexington senior slugger Chris Shaw, who has committed to Boston College, was drafted by the New York Mets in the 26th round of the Major League Baseball draft.Phil Perry can be reached at email@example.com.