By Rick Menning
Last summer in Kirkland, Washington, the Milford Junior League girls' softball All-Stars saw their World Series play come to an end in quarterfinal action against eventual champion Jenison, Michigan.
This summer, the ladies from Brewster Field will have no similar exit. In fact, this year's U.S. East representatives have clinched recognition as being among the top four teams in the world.
However, the Milford squad wants so much more and its resilience against Victoria, British Columbia, Canada on Thursday shows a will to win when challenged to fight through a very tough opponent.
The All-Stars from Connecticut made a two-run first inning stand up in a tense and heart-pounding 2-1 victory over the youth softballers from north of the border.
Unlike in pool play, U.S. East was mandated to produce stellar fielding and clutch pitching to advance to Friday's semifinal match-up against Niceville, Florida. The Sunshine State girls, who have won four of five World Series contests, posted a 7-2 victory over the Czech Republic.
Friday's game will be nationally televised on ESPN+ starting at 5 p.m.
After breezing to a 4-0 record and outscoring all of their Pool B opponents by a combined 42-6 margin, Milford had all it could handle as Canada shut down its usually potent offense.
But when one facet of their game -- the hitting -- was held in check after a two-run first inning, the U.S. East stars went into combat mode through stellar fielding and clutch pitching.
"Our team can win a game a million different ways. We can win playing great defense and we can win with (pitcher) Abby (Corris) shutting down a team in the clutch," said manager Brian Corris, whose squad had coasted past the Czech Republic (11-1), Arizona (15-0), Texas (7-2) and Mexico (9-3) in sweeping through pool play. "Their (relief) pitcher was awesome in shutting our hitting down but we fought through it with a lot of defense and Abby's pitching today."
Tenacity in adversity
With Canada already having scored a run and threatening bigtime with the bases loaded and only one out in the fifth inning, Corris induced a pop fly to shortstop Gabby Rodriguez for the second out and then used her go-to rise ball for her fifth and most important strikeout of the seven she recorded in the cliffhanger.
Corris jumped a foot into the air in a release of emotion after the critical third out in that fifth frame.
Later, in the top of the seventh inning and with one out, catcher Chloe Capalbo snapped off a slingshot throw down to second base for a key caught stealing.
"Chloe puts that ball exactly where it needs to be and exactly when it needs to be there," Brian Corris said. "That was a huge play right there because that girl's slide was perfect and so the throw had to be perfect also. (Shortstop) Gabby (Rodriguez) got the tag down because that was a great slide by that (Canada) girl."
In terms of the Milford bats, the first inning wound up being essential to keeping the All-Star season alive.
Leadoff hitter Julia Scibek blasted a triple inside the right-field line and Lily Stankevich followed with an RBI single to center field. The Milford squad made it 2-0 on Maddie Deldin's run-scoring base knock to right field.
"We got Abby a couple of runs in that first inning and then it was a dogfight from there on out," Corris said.
The U.S. East athletes threatened to score even more in that first inning with runners on second and third base but Canada averted further damage.
Willpower and focus
Corris, who entered the game with 26 strikeouts and only two walks in compiling a 3-0 pool-play record, found herself having to dig deep inside the circle against a Victoria team that recorded four straight hits -- three of which were infield singles -- enroute to its lone run in that fifth frame.
"We got out of a couple bases-loaded jams, and today Abby came through for us when she had to and our defense came through around her," Corris said.
She finished with seven strikeouts and one intentional walk. The run she allowed was the first earned run she has given up the entire tournament.
Defensively, Milford came up big in the fourth inning when, with two outs and Canada runners on second and third, Julia Scibek grabbed a hot liner right at the third-base bag and made the long toss over to Deldin at first for the final out.
If that fourth inning escape was big, the fifth-inning clutch effort with Canada trying to rally in a major way was huge.
Brian Corris feels that being in a tight game will strengthen the team's resolve heading into Friday's semifinal.
"It's going to be a tough road, but none of the teams are unbeatable so we'll give it our best shot," Corris said.