Before Erin O’Keefe dug in her heels inside the circle in the bottom of the first inning, the Chelmsford High senior hurler had been handed a comfortable eight-run cushion.
The Lions wasted no time in jumping all over host Lowell Tuesday morning at the Martin Alumni Athletic Complex.
With every batter in the lineup collecting at least two hits, Chelmsford cruised to an 18-5, five-inning victory.
The clinic at the plate — resulting in a 26-hit barrage — was not an aberration.
Coach Bruce Rich’s relentless top-to-bottom lineup has feasted on pitchers this spring in an 8-1 start.
His team’s eight victories are only one shy of last year’s win total, indicating that things have changed in Chelmsford.
The Lions have risen to contender status this season; and their bats are only part of the reason why.
“We trot out nine batters, and there isn’t a single one that isn’t a tough out,” Rich said. “Whether it’s the smallball or power, it’s a balanced group that’s been grinding and clicking.”
Junior infielder Shannon Garrity credits her team’s patience and “one pitch at a time” approach. Taylor Rowsell , a sophomore pitcher, finds comfort in the embedded trust starting from the last person in the dugout to home plate.
“We have that fire,” Rowsell said, “like we play like it’s zero-zero every at-bat.”
“Like coach always says, it doesn’t matter how much we’re up by,” she added. “It’s always zero-zero.”
Chelmsford’s bats are certainly flashy, but Rich’s pitching rotation might be the most valuable asset.
For the first time in his 23 years with the program, Rich has four pitchers to call upon.
O’Keefe (4-0) and junior Jacky Arndt (3-0) share the starting role, while Rowsell (1-0) and freshman Meg Dugas are in relief. The starters throw with more variety and control, and the closers with fierce heat.
It’s the ideal 1-2 combo that hasn’t shown signs of slowing down.
“Having the confidence to put any one of them out there at any given time is special,” Rich said. “I think it’s a nice problem that we have; they all bring a little something different.”
The reduced workload reduces the stress on O’Keefe and Arndt. And the depth keeps foes guessing.
“It’s good to know that we have backup,” O’Keefe said. “When I come out I know that Taylor or Meg will do her job; we don’t have to worry about losing a lead with someone else taking over.”
O’Keefe, along with seniors Libby Mercuri and Abby Desrosiers , captains a relatively young squad that returns seven starters.
Despite the range in ages, there’s no sense of entitlement.
“From the pinch runners all the way to the pitcher, everybody matters on this team,” Mercuri said.
Standing alongside her four other classmates — Garrity, Arndt, Catherine Nestor, and Carly Rennie — junior Shannon Nagle looked around and said “we all only play for each other, not for ourselves.”
Dugas acknowledged how she has been embraced “arms wide open” as the only freshman on the varsity. Sophomore Charlotte Anderson rattled off Dugas’s versatility: the ability to hit, run, catch, and pitch.
“Everybody on this team is a leader in some way,” Rowsell added. “Whether it be a freshman to a senior — we listen to each other. It’s not ‘you’re below me,’ it’s ‘you’re my teammate and we fight together.’ ”
The same affection goes to Rich, who, according to the players, puts on his best “Bruce Almighty” impression.
Nestor can’t think of a time her coach hasn’t given her advice that worked.
“If he tells us to hit line drive, and you think line drive, you will hit line drive,” Garrity said while her teammates laughed in agreement.
“It’s like he’s God!” the juniors shouted in unison.
There are no miracles involved in the Lions’ impressive start — just the perseverance of a team on a mission.
A few miles away, in Billerica, the Indians are putting together a similar turnaround.
Coach Patty Higgins’s squad bolted out to a 5-1 record after a 7-13 finish a year ago.
“It’s just like a new positive energy and atmosphere of a year,” Higgins said.
“They’re believing in themselves, and it’s been quite a difference. For some reason, this group has come together and the puzzle pieces fit.”
With just five returning players, Higgins credits her three senior captains, Cassidy Sorenson, Jenna Shea, and Sabrina Loureiro , for embracing their roles as difference makers on a developing club.
“In the summer, they had a dream and goal for this team to come together and have success,” Higgins recalled. “They’ve led this run, and the other kids have just followed.”
Another important factor: a pitching rotation of sophomores Jen Bartley, Rachael Trott, and junior Alycia Longuemare .
“Playing in a league that always comes at you, you have to do something different,” Higgins said of the Merrimack Valley Conference. “We’re trying to throw a wrinkle at this and see what happens . . . So far it’s worked.”
Her younger players’ composure and ability to click so quickly has surprised Higgins, who is in her 21st year with the program.
“Sometimes I turn to my coaches after they make one of those ‘wow’ plays and say, ‘Can you believe they just did that?’ ” she said.
“To them it’s no big deal; it’s what they’re supposed to do . . . All the stars have aligned, I guess, in a lot of ways.”
Taking on the best
At Malden Catholic, baseball coach Patrick Driscol embraces the challenge of putting together a tough schedule.
Malden Catholic (4-3) has already faced Catholic Conference rivals Boston College High, St. John’s Prep, and Xaverian, along with Billerica.
“When you play those types of teams every game, you realize that every single pitch and inning matters,” Driscoll said. “You can’t take any pitch off because those teams are going to jump all over it and make you pay . . . I think it’s the only way the kids are going to get better.”
The Lancers leaned on senior captain Steve Passatempo for his clutch play, along with senior Dan Marini and junior Jake Witkowski .
Driscoll said of Passatempo: “I’m really proud of the way he’s grown over the last couple of years into the leader he’s become.”
Off to a strong start
In Tewksbury, the Redmen softball team has quietly jumped out to a 6-1 start.
Coach Leo DiRocco admits the team’s success starts and ends with his only two seniors, Shannon McLaughlin and Brooke Hardy .
McLaughlin has a 6-1 record in the circle.
Hardy, a shortstop recruited to play at Division 1 Jacksonville University next spring, has been stellar.
Tewksbury also starts four freshmen: Adrianna Favreau, Teagan Trant, Marissa Doherty, and Allie Joseph .
“There’s a lot of pressure on the young ones, but they fall into whatever we’re doing,” DiRocco said. “They’re very polished and never in awe of the moment . . . That’s the biggest thing for us.”
Joseph Saade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, a quote from Taylor Rowsell was mistakenly attributed to the author, Joseph Saade, in a previous version.