In two games this postseason, the Toll Gate softball team has allowed just one run and made two total errors.
It’s no coincidence then that the Titans have won them both, and they’re playing as well as they have all season at the most important time of the year.
On Thursday, Toll Gate got six and one-third dominant innings on the mound from Courtney Marsh and played error-free ball en route to an upset of fifth-seeded La Salle in the single elimination round of the Division I playoffs.
Then on Sunday, the Titans got another strong start from Marsh and solid relief pitching from Arizona Hunt-Kirkland and Courtney Sheridan, as well as a two-run home run from Jamie Hopgood to knock off 13th-seeded Mount St. Charles 3-0 in the double-elimination portion of the tournament.
Just like that, the 12th-seeded Titans, who went only 7-9 in the regular season, are in the winner’s bracket semifinals.
“It’s good to have good pitchers and good defense with us,” said Hopgood after Sunday’s game. “It makes everyone breathe a little easier.”
For the third straight season, Toll Gate will play at Rhode Island College in the playoffs. Last year, after going just 8-10 in the regular season, the Titans ended up as one of the final three teams standing. In 2011, Toll Gate was one of the final five teams left.
As it is now, they’re guaranteed to at least be one of the final six.
“The girls are great under pressure,” Toll Gate head coach Shana O’Connor said.
Nobody has shown that more than Marsh. Against La Salle, the second-highest scoring team in D-I, she didn’t allow a single base runner through the first three innings before surrendering a solo home run in the fourth to Maxine DeLuise.
After that, she settled down to retire the next eight batters in a row. She did allow two singles in the seventh inning, but Sheridan was brought in to close the door and she did just that, striking out the only two batters she faced and stranding the winning run at second base.
Marsh ended the game allowing just one run on three hits while striking out nine. She didn’t walk a single batter.
“Courtney Marsh pitched a heck of a game,” O’Connor said on Thursday. “She gave up three hits, no walks. She was on. She was hitting her spots. Fantastic.”
Offensively against the Rams, the Titans grabbed a run in the first on an RBI double by Hopgood and another in the second on an RBI single by Laura Salisbury, and then were shut out the rest of the way by La Salle starter Brianna Swanholm.
Still, with the pitching of Marsh and Sheridan, it was enough for a victory to keep Toll Gate’s season alive.
“I think everybody has rough games and rough days,” Marsh said. “Today, I just kind of felt confident. Coach told me, ‘You’ve got to be aggressive.’ I came out and tried to be aggressive, and it worked out.”
Against Mount, the Titans followed a similar formula. Marsh started the game and breezed through the first three innings while allowing just one hit and three base runners, two of which came on Toll Gate’s only two errors thus far. In the fourth inning, she ran in to some trouble by walking the first two batters, but Hunt-Kirkland came on and retired three batters in a row, two by strikeout, to escape the jam.
Going to the bullpen is a strategy that O’Connor and Toll Gate have used all year, which is not exactly par for the course for the rest of the state. Most teams use just one pitcher, regardless of the situation.
The Titans believe that their pitching depth gives them an advantage.
“I think times have changed in that the offense has improved tremendously over the years,” O’Connor said. “The fact that the pitcher’s mound got moved back to the 43 feet, I think everyone is hitting a lot better. To challenge the batters, we try to get them to face a variety of pitchers. We want to keep the batters on their toes, and we have the advantage of doing that with a great pitching staff.”
Hunt-Kirkland worked around a two-on, two-out jam in the fifth and a two-out double in the sixth before running in to some trouble of her own in the seventh. She walked the first two batters of the inning, and O’Connor again went to the bullpen.
In came Sheridan, and for the second straight game she closed it out. She struck out Emily DiCecco, walked Elisabeth Berard, induced a pop-up by Briana Castro and then got a groundball from Taylor Dill to Ingrid Freeman at second base to end the game with the bases loaded.
Toll Gate’s three pitchers stranded 10 Mount base runners. The Mounties had only two hits, and the Titans have surrendered just five in 14 postseason innings.
“They had a lot of runners left on base,” O’Connor said. “Both Arizona and Courtney came in with runners on first and second, and they did excellent with the pressure.”
Toll Gate’s offense against Mount came early, as Hopgood singled in Jenna Beauchamp in the first, and then Hopgood drilled an inside fastball from Mount starter Kylie Finnerty over the right-field fence in the third inning for a two-run home run. Courtney Conklin came around on the blast after she had singled earlier in the inning.
“I was kind of nervous going up, but I kind of just tried to relax and say, ‘Wait for your pitch, get what you want,’” Hopgood said. “When she threw it to me, I just swung.”
Toll Gate only had one hit the rest of the way, but once again, thanks to pitching and defense, the early offense was enough to get the job done.
Next on the docket for the Titans is a game against top-seeded Lincoln today at 5 p.m. at RIC. The Lions are the defending state champions, and haven’t lost a single game since 2011. They went 16-0 this season.
One of those wins came over Toll Gate, 7-4 on May 17. If the Titans can pull the upset this time, they’ll advance to the winner’s bracket final and will be two wins away from a state championship. With a loss, they’ll play Westerly, Coventry or East Providence on the road, and they will need to win five games in a row to win the state title.
“I want to play Lincoln,” Hopgood said. “They’re a good team, and they’re good competition. I think we can do well against them.”