When the Acton-Boxborough Regional High softball team lost in the Division 1 North semifinal to Newton North, 11-10, the players did what they did after every game, win or lose.
Senior captains Hannah Graney , Kara O’Riley , Kirsten Pfister and Michelle Surdan were almost on autopilot. They had performed the same postgame ritual for the past three years under coach Mary Matthews : shake hands with opponents; thank umpires; line up on the edge of the outfield for sprints.
But on the last night of their high school careers, there were no sprints, no more games for which to prepare. When the four captains met on the foul line in left field at Martin Field in Lowell, the finality of it all set in.
They hugged. Tears flowed.
“All four of us were so emotional,” Graney said. “I think that’s when it kind of hit us. The four of us, who had been through everything together on the team these past three years, are never going to play together again.”
Since 2011, when the foursome carved out starting roles for themselves on the varsity roster as sophomores, the Colonials have been one of the most successful teams in the state. In 2011 and last season, they won the Dual County League Large Division title and advanced to the Division 1 North final, winning it in 2011. They compiled an overall record of 51-20, and went 10-3 in the postseason.
“I’ve tried to explain to them that they are probably the most successful players to ever come out of this program,” Matthews said.
“Before 2011, we only made it to the North finals twice in school history. For them to make it twice is pretty awesome. To win it once is great. They need to remember the successes that they had, and not the way it ended.”
For Graney, O’Riley, and Surdan, their on-the-field friendship began 10 years ago.
Graney and O’Riley were always teammates in Acton-Boxborough Youth Softball, and Surdan got to know them as opponents. All of them, whether on the diamond at Gates Elementary or (on what seemed like special occasions) at the high school, dreamed of playing for the Colonials some day.
They played together during summers for the A-B Lightning, and as freshmen took Pfister — a Littleton resident new to her classmates at Acton-Boxborough — under their wing. The four bonded as sophomores when they worked furiously to prove themselves in varsity workouts.
“We worked our tails off,” remembered Surdan. “Literally there was blood, sweat, and tears. But we had a great year and that kind of kick-started us to feel like we could be the future’’ of Acton-Boxborough softball.
Since then, through sleepovers, long bus rides focused on hair stylings, sing-alongs to Bruce Springstein in the locker room, and group text messages, they’ve become closer than ever.
O’Riley, the team’s ace, might have said it best when Matthews visited her in the circle during a game this spring. The coach told the pitcher to trust her fielders behind her. “I trust them with my life,” O’Riley told her.
All four captains were named DCL All-Stars this season. Surdan, a first baseman, will play next year at Mount Saint Mary College, while O’Riley and Graney, a shortstop, will compete against one another at Salve Regina and Endicott, respectively.
Pfister, an outfielder and second baseman for the Colonials, will attend University of New Hampshire, and understands that her days of playing competitive softball are likely over. For the first time in seven summers, she won’t play for a softball team. Instead, she’ll watch her former teammates as they prepare for their college seasons.
She’ll miss the game, specifically the camaraderie and the adrenaline rush she gets when chasing down a fly ball, but she was happy to finish her career with a group she so highly respected.
“I just can’t imagine playing for another team,” she said. “The last three years, I couldn’t have asked for better teammates.”
All four vow to remain involved in the Colonials softball program, helping with practices next spring when they return from college, the way Sarah Ropiak, at Brown now, and Merrimack’s Lindsay Gibbs did this year, and as others have in years past.
This growing network of players-turned-helpers — affectionately known throughout the program as “Has-Beens” — organized a game, scheduled for Sunday, at the high school field.
Not quite ready to say goodbye, Graney, O’Riley, Pfister, and Surdan all planned to be there.
Underdogs who believed
It happens every spring. Both in softball and baseball, as the MIAA tournaments play out, there sprouts a Cinderella story or two.
This year, the Franklin High softball team and the Millis baseball squad both played the role of spoiler.
The No. 11 seed Panthers made it all the way to the sectional semifinal in the Division 1 South bracket before falling to eventual South champ Milford. Along the way, they knocked off No. 22 New Bedford, No. 6 Marshfield, and No. 3 Sandwich.
Coach Kate Fallon knew her team had a chance to survive as an underdog, given the difficult Hockomock League schedule it played during the regular season.
“Every single game we play in our league is a tough game,” said Fallon, whose team finished 16-7. “There aren’t anywhere you say, ‘Oh, this in the bag.’ We play Milford, King Philip, teams that are really top dogs in the state. When I saw the bracket, I said we have a chance to go all the way to the semis, and the girls were looking at me like, ‘Really?’ ”
Behind junior pitcher Elizabeth Criscione , who allowed just three runs and struck out 25 in Franklin’s three tournament wins, the Panthers knew they could compete with the South sectional’s best teams.
“They had nothing to lose,” Fallon said, “and they completely bought in.”
Millis, the No. 9 seed in the Division 4 South bracket, used solid pitching and a streaking top of their batting order to get all the way to the South title game, where it lost to Pope John Paul II, 8-1. The Mohawks upset No. 8 Old Colony, No. 1 West Bridgewater, and No. 5 Bishop Connolly to get to their first sectional final in 40 years.
“They were really focused in the moment,” said Steve Simoes , who shared head coaching duties. “They didn’t really look at it from a historical perspective until it was done. They just professionally went about really believing they could win a state title.”
Seniors Matt Ferreira and Derek Bauer — the top two hitters in the Millis lineup — wreaked havoc on the base paths, while sophomore Matt Fogarty and junior Gavin Bradbury , both Tri-Valley League All-Stars, were the run producers in the No. 3 and 4 spots in the order. In their 6-4 win over Bishop Connolly, Fogarty and Bradbury led the way with back-to-back home runs.
With the team’s middle-of-the-order sluggers set to return next season, Simoes thinks Millis, which finished this season at 16-10, will be able take some of the momentum it built in the postseason and carry it over to next spring.
“The more big games you play and the more success you have,” Simoes said, “it continues to breed success.”