Tackling Taunton 2.0: Energized by walk-off win, battle-tested Central must be at its best (2024)

Central Catholic spent 18 games during the regular season feeling the effects of the Raiders’ stunning run to the 2023 Division 1 state title game.

This spring was going to be different.

“I think that last year we were younger, and we were a little bit more clueless, and we just went out and played with a reckless abandon. We had some talent and we made it happen,” said Central coach Stacy Ciccolo.

“This year, we understood the target on our back. People were coming for us. We didn’t produce as much as we had hoped along the way. It’s been a rocky year. It hasn’t been smooth sailing. I love our kids, but it hasn’t been an easy ride.”

Going 16-2, little came easy. It took investment of time, energy and patience.

Saturday morning in the Division 1 quarterfinals, the Raiders finally reaped some dividends, stunning Saint Paul Diocesan with a two-run rally in the bottom of the seventh to earn a return trip to the D1 final four.

“The benefit of last year is that they’ve been here before, so they’ve had to fight a little bit in games. Last year with Peabody in the final four was a real fight. This felt like that game,” said a relieved Ciccolo after the win. “I felt like the experience of that helped a little bit, but we’ve got to play better. This is not our best game. We’re not walking off here thinking we did something miraculous.”

Hopefully, Central did not use up its miracle. The Raiders, 21-2, now turn around to face three-time defending state champ Taunton in the semis, Tuesday night at Worcester State.

Taunton is the program by which all programs are measured in these parts – unbeaten and relatively untested to date. The Tigers also denied Central in the title game a year ago, 6-1.

Central is more than capable. Remember, this is a team with eight starters back from a year ago. But the Raiders are going to need their best.

And nobody has been better battle-tested.

“People bring their best game to Central anyway. Every time, we get people’s best game,” said Ciccolo. “We’re playing a little bit better now, but we’ve definitely had our ups and downs this season.

“We have a young pitcher behind Julia (Malowitz), so we’ve asked Julia to do more this year. and we’ve really put the pressure on our seniors to step up and provide the offense. That’s a lot some times when everybody brings their best game.”

What Central oozed on Saturday was “fight.” They kept fighting, whatever score or situation presented itself.

“I never felt like we were totally out of it. We got down on ourselves, but I kind of knew if we could just change our mindset, we could fight a little bit harder and do it,” said Ciccolo.

That bodes well against Taunton, a team that has outscored the opposition, 246-16, in 23 straight wins.

Consider Ciccolo and the Raiders happy to be here, considering how trying the road was. Don’t even think about using the word, “satisfied.”

“I’m very happy, because I feel like this year it was harder to do. We’re just proud of being able to string some things together and make it happen,” she said.

Memorable Ranger run comes to end

Methuen High coach Jason Smith could not wipe the smile off his face, basically for the last month-plus.

As rugged a road as his Rangers endured, they found themselves and their potential down the stretch of the season, reaching their third straight Division 1 state quarterfinal.

The run ended Saturday night at the hands of Gatorade Player of the Year Samantha Lincoln and unbeaten Taunton.

“I’m proud of my kids, especially coming off such a great game (10-inning Round of 16 win over North Andover) earlier this week,” said Smith, whose Rangers closed out the year at 13-10.

“Especially my seniors, some of them who we’ve had for four years at the varsity level, they have nothing to be ashamed of. I’m proud of them, tough season, and we finished very, very strong.”

The Rangers deserve a ton of credit. Adversity slugged them in the face back in December when Eagle-Tribune All-Star slugger Thyanais Santiago tore her ACL.

The UMass Lowell-bound senior oozed character, captaining both hoop and softball from the sidelines this year.

There were some serious stumbles along the way, blowout losses to Central and Tewksbury twice.

At 9-9, heading into the Methuen Invitational, they were on the brink of characterizing the season as a “missed opportunity.”

But there was too much heart in the Ranger dugout, leading with senior four-year vets like Kiele Coleman, Ari Baez, Mackenzie Yirrell and Santiago.

“We looked at our tournament almost like they were playoff games,” said Smith. “In four playoff-type games in a row, we stood tall.

“Ari, Kiele, Kenzie and ‘T’ played in a lot of big games. There’s a lot of big-game experience in that group. We’re going to miss them.”

In addition to the big four, Alexis Anthony and Bella Monsanto slid into lead roles this year, while Alyssa Cassidy and Sadie Putman were key reserves.

Anthony’s emergence in the circle was huge, for sure, in the late resurgence.

“The North Andover game showed you who she is, a warrior,” said Smith. “She’s an absolute bulldog.”

Methuen won’t exactly be starting over.

Adriana Delaney (left field), Bella Medeiros (second), Colleen McNamara (first base) all return to the top of the lineup. Catcher Ella Hayes is rock-solid behind the dish, and freshman Melany Reyes showed a ton of promise with a strong year at the plate.

But this senior class will take an awful lot of work to replace for sure. They left an indelible mark.

Tackling Taunton 2.0: Energized by walk-off win, battle-tested Central must be at its best (2024)

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