Ryley White and Sabrina Morse have been playing pitch and catch since age 8.
As freshmen at Dracut High, White stepped into the circle and Morse went behind the plate. From the start, the pair have played pivotal roles in the turnaround of a Middie program that developed into one of the region’s top Division 2 programs.
Now, as senior captains, they are determined to go out winners.
“We don’t even need to talk about things, she can just give me a certain look and I know which pitch she wants me to call,” Morse said. “I’ve gotten better the last couple of years at knowing when Ryley’s pitch is really working, or a hitter has struggled with a certain pitch. It’s led to a lot more strikeouts for Ryley.”
The UMass Lowell-bound White is putting together another stellar season for Dracut (13-5), compiling a 2.14 ERA while fanning a staggering 186 hitters in 128 innings.
“She’s very gritty, when it’s time to step up she will,” said Jason Keefe, Dracut’s third coach in three years. “She definitely works hard. She’s got great command of all her pitches and the more she throws the more she gets into a groove.”
When White and Morse arrived as freshmen, both cracking the starting lineup, Dracut was coming off a 7-12 season. The Middies finished 15-5, bowing out to Burlington in a Division 2 North quarterfinal. It was a culture change for the program.
There was an extended run as sophomores to the state title game, and then had another quarterfinal exit a year ago.
“It just really makes you want to push even harder for the next year and keep winning,” White said. “Hopefully we can make it far this year and potentially win.”
As senior captains, the two have put an emphasis on team bonding off the field, which they hope, will result in playing more in synch on the diamond.
“I think that helps a lot with winning on the field as we get closer,” White said. “I feel like when we came in as freshmen we were just a strong class. All of us became really close as friends.”
White’s individual performance has consistently improved as she nears 1,000 career strikeouts. In addition, she has seen an uptick in her velocity as well improvement in her stamina.
But she has also looked for ways to improve at the plate, enlisting the help of former Dracut coach George Roy, her mentor as a freshman and sophomore who is still part of the local softball community.
“He’s such a good hitting coach,” Keefe said. “He observes everything, and our players feel comfortable asking him for advice.”
Thanks to his tutelage, White is hitting .362 with all six of Dracut’s six home runs this season. She also leads the Middies with 21 RBIs and a .793 slugging percentage.
“If I ever need help with anything, I ask him,” White said. “He helps me tweak it really quick and then I start doing better. Even now that he’s not the coach anymore, he still comes to all of our games.”
Her best season came as a sophomore. After finishing the regular season with a 16-4 record, Dracut cruised to the Division 2 North title and a date with Norton and ace Kelly Nelson in the state semifinals. The Middies prevailed, 4-0, in a 13-inning thriller.
“Our journey to the state final was the most fun I ever had playing softball,” Morse said. “That feeling of success after every win was incredible, we really played as a team.”
But Dracut was denied in the state final, losing to Grafton, 10-1.
“We talk about it like every single day in practice,” White said.
“It was so fun making it up to there, but that game we all just choked really hard. We all regret how we played and now we’re trying so hard to get back to that level again.”
That loss served as motivation for White to become a better player, and leader.
Dracut, with an influx of new starters, began slowly this season.
“We had talks telling our younger players about the potential this team has,” Morse said. “But we all had to get comfortable and work together.”
In conversations before the season with his captains, Keefe said that White was “someone I could lean on because of older stuff they did in the past and newer stuff I wanted to do.”
After a 3-3 start, Dracut rattled off 10 straight wins before one-run losses to Austin Prep and top-ranked Lowell.
“This year’s team is very comparable [to 2017], only we started slower,” Keefe said. “But we’re rolling now and it’s all good signs. We’re always learning and making changes.
“Now hopefully we can go for it in the state tournament.”
■ With a 3-0 win over Bellingham Thursday, Norton (14-4, 14-2) repeated as Tri-Valley League Small champ.
“This group went to work,” said Norton coach Wade Lizotte. “I can’t say enough on their work ethic and their passion for this game.”
The Lancers reloaded quickly after the gradution of Kelly Nelson (Holy Cross), the Globe’s two-time D2 Player of the Year, who is the state’s career leader in strikeouts.
“I don’t think many people gave us a shot to place in the TVL,” Lizotte said. “We built a program here. We knew what we had coming up.
“I’m extremely proud of how they responded when they could have just laid down and not brought it.”
■ Second-ranked Taunton defeated Hockomock rival Attleboro, 8-0, on May 18, giving coach Dave Lewry his 400th win. Lewry took over the program in 2000 and has led the Tigers to four state titles, including one last season.
The Tigers enjoyed another momentous occasion Sunday, when sophomore Kelsey White threw a perfect game, striking out 12 in a 9-0 win over Coyle & Cassidy.
■ Cardinal Spellman is in the midst of a marathon run, playing nine games in eight days to close out its regular season. Due to the weather and other circumstances, postponements and rescheduled games are to be squeezed in between May 27 and June 3, the final day of the regular season — with June 1 as a day off.
“It’ll be interesting,” said coach Mike Gerrish. “[The team is] young and they take things in stride. They’ve been great about it. It’s a great group of kids.”
Games to watch
■ Thursday, Franklin at No. 7 Bishop Feehan (3:30 p.m.) — The Shamrocks have faced Hockomock League foes before as part of their tough nonleague slate. How will they fare against Kelley-Rex power Franklin?
■ Friday, No. 5 Plymouth South at Dennis-Yarmouth (4 p.m.) — The host Dolphins fell to Plymouth South, 12-0, in the second game of the season. In the regular-season finale, the Atlantic Coast League leaders will get another look at a potential D2 South tourney opponent.
■ Friday, No. 14 North Attleborough at No. 2 Taunton (7 p.m.) — The only clash between the Hockomock League’s divisional leaders takes place under the lights to close the regular season.
■ Sunday, Dighton-Rehoboth at Norton (3 p.m.) — A pair of D2 teams close out their regular seasons in a game that will surely have major seeding implications. The Falcons won the first meeting?
■ Monday, Concord-Carlisle at No. 4 Acton-Boxborough (4 p.m.) — On the final day of the regular season, the league rivals face off less than 24 hours before the MIAA tourney seedings are released.
Dan Shulman can be reached at email@example.com. Jenna Ciccotelli also contributed.