DARTMOUTH — The triple is always the hardest.
Austin Prep center fielder Nick Saunders learned this lesson when chasing a cycle earlier this season, so when he ripped a ball over the left fielder’s head in his first at-bat of Saturday’s 14-4 road win over Bishop Stang, he was thinking about third base out of the box.
But the ball found a gap under the snow fence in left field for a ground-rule double. Saunders then led off the fourth with a single. In the fifth, he blasted a no-doubt home run onto the softball field in left.
With one out in the top of the sixth, he strode to the plate for his fourth at-bat and promptly barreled up another ball, sending it screaming toward the fence in left-center. As Saunders rounded second with a head of steam, the Spartans outfielders put up their arms and his dream of a cycle was undone by another ground-rule double.
“If that didn’t roll under the fence, I was going,” said Saunders, a junior who had to settle for a 4-for-4 day with nine total bases, four runs scored and an RBI, all while hitting ninth.
“I was very locked in at the plate,” he said.
Saunders nearly missing a cycle was about the only thing that didn’t go right for the third-ranked Cougars, as they rapped out 17 hits against the 11th-ranked Spartans (10-2) in a showdown of division leaders in the Catholic Central League.
“We were looking great,” Saunders said. “I feel like we came prepared. We were mentally there.”
That mental toughness was on display as the Cougars (13-1) — who reached No. 1 in the Globe’s rankings before losing 3-0 to St. Mary’s on Monday — were able to muster such a definitive victory less than 18 hours after battling to a 4-2 win over No. 16 BC High.
“After the big win [Friday] we realized we had to keep moving,” Saunders said. “We can’t stop now. We have to go until it’s over. It was a big weekend. This was a game we wanted to win.”
It was the third straight game Austin Prep has faced a top-tier pitcher, with UMass Lowell-bound Hayden Duke of Stang following BC High’s Matt Keene and Aiven Cabral of St. Mary’s.
“We knew we were going to face three quality teams and three quality arms and the turnaround would be a grind,” Austin Prep coach JP Pollard said. “They stepped up, zero hesitation, and took on the challenge.”
Despite scoring their fewest runs in a game this season, the Spartans’ bats weren’t quiet, collecting 12 hits. But they were outdone by Austin Prep’s strong fundamentals. Cougars starter Jack Iannibelli, who earned the victory, picked off three runners in the first two innings and his defense provided extra outs in the form of a caught stealing, a strong relay to nab a baserunner at third and two double plays.
“We’ve really come together,” Saunders said. “We’re like a family now. Everyone is hitting and cheering each other on. Overall, it’s a great culture.”