ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead left fielder Sarah Freeborn makes a leaping, one-handed grab to save two runs in the first inning of Monday’s playoff game against Smithtown West.
SUFFOLK CLASS AA FIRST ROUND | BLUE WAVES 11, BULLS 6
The ball came scorching off the bat of Smithtown West center fielder Teresa Staiano, a lined shot into left field. Two runs had already scored for the Bulls in the opening inning Monday and two more runners were steaming toward home.
The Smithtown fans erupted in anticipation, fully expecting the ball to drop beyond the grasp of Riverhead left fielder Sarah Freeborn.
With only a split second to react, Freeborn darted on an angle to her left, leaped with both feet and threw her glove into the air, hoping for the best. The ball jammed directly into her mitt as Freeborn landed with a precious third out, saving the Blue Waves from what could have been a disastrous first inning.
“My ups finally came in use for something,” said Freeborn, who’s one of the shorter players on Riverhead’s roster.
After Freeborn’s catch, the Blue Waves’ offense quickly went to work, striking for three runs in the first inning in an 11-6 Class AA first round playoff victory at Riverhead High School.
It took a team effort for the eighth-seeded Blue Waves, who got key contributions from every spot in the lineup, plus some defensive gems like Freeborn’s.
“She saved my life,” Riverhead pitcher Amanda Graziano said of Freeborn’s first-inning grab.
The Blue Waves scored four runs in both the third and fourth innings to build an eight-run lead.
ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead senior Alex McKillop eludes the tag of Smithtown catcher Carissa Kinsella at home plate in the third inning for the Blue Waves’ fourth run.
The win sends the Blue Waves into the quarterfinals Wednesday against top-seeded Bay Shore, 6-0 winners Monday against Centereach. Bay Shore has been a perennial power in softball with five county titles since 2004.
If the Blue Waves can pull out a win against Bay Shore, they would advance into the semifinals, which begins the double-elimination portion of the bracket. A loss Wednesday would mark the end of the season.
For the Blue Waves (16-5), getting to the playoffs has been the goal from day one. After finishing tantalizingly close from the postseason a year ago, the Blue Waves knew they had the talent to get it done this year with so many players returning, including their ace Graziano.
“It was our No. 1 goal to make the playoffs,” Graziano said. “To have a home game and to win the first round really means a lot because it hasn’t been done since we were freshmen and we lost in the first round. To make it past is really great.”
The Mercy College-bound Graziano has been the starting pitcher for the Blue Waves each of the past three seasons since Riverhead’s last playoff appearance.
ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead shortstop Danielle Napoli fields a grounder, eyes closed, in Monday’s playoff victory.
She faced some early adversity as the Blue Waves fell behind early in part from some defensive miscues. But Graziano persevered, and aside from one rough inning in the sixth when the Blue Waves were comfortably ahead, she threw well enough to send the Blue Waves into the next round.
In the second inning Graziano struck out third baseman Kayla McCoy for her 100th strikeout of the season.
The Bulls (13-7) tried to mount a rally in the sixth when the first five runners reached base, capped by a two-run double to left by McCoy. The Bulls had runners on second and third with no outs.
“She toughed through it,” said Riverhead coach Bob Fox. “That’s what counts. Get through it.”
Graziano retired the next three Smithtown batters, sparked by a nice grab at first base by Alex McKillop on a line drive.
After the game ended, Graziano distributed cupcakes to teammates, gathered her equipment and quickly headed for home; a concert awaited her later in the evening. Graizano plays the cello in the orchestra.
The Blue Waves have now won seven of their last eight games, hitting their stride at just the right time.
The offensive eruption was just what Fox was waiting to see from his team.
“Today they all hit together,” Fox said. “This is the first time they all got together.”
Freeborn had a big day at the plate with 2 doubles and 3 RBIs batting in the eight hole. Her third-inning double to right-center brought two runs home and extended Riverhead’s lead to 7-2.
“It was an outside pitch and I hit outside really well,” Freeborn said.
The six-seven-eight hitters combined for 6 RBIs in the win. Junior Stephanie Falisi drove in a pair of runs, including one on a double in the fourth inning. Sophomore Karla Vanston crushed a ball to center field in the third inning to bring home a run on a double.
The Blue Waves did all their damage against Smithtown starter Melissa Kostev, who suffered a bruised lower lip when a ground ball up the middle bounced into her face. Kostev was down for several minutes, but didn’t come out of the game.
Freeborn delivered the final RBI of the night for Riverhead in the inning when she doubled to center to make it 11-3.
“I felt good today,” Freeborn said.
So too did her teammates.