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St. Mary’s edges Nichols to capture MMA softball crown

The only thing in St. Mary’s of Lancaster’s softball game that needs a little work is the postgame photo shoot.

The Lancers had a little trouble jumping for joy for the camera in unison, but that’s OK. They had no trouble rising to the occasion as a team Wednesday in the Monsignor Martin Association championship game, as the Lancers ended Nichols’ two-year title reign with a 7-6 triumph before an estimated 300 at Sunshine Park on a brisk, sunny spring day.

Winning pitcher Erin Hufford scored the winning run in the top of the sixth inning to highlight a huge offensive day by the sophomore. She then relied on her defense to make the plays behind her the rest of the way as the Lancers captured their first playoff championship since 2010.

“We definitely wanted to redeem ourselves from last year when we lost to them” in the final, “and earlier this year when we lost to them,” said Hufford, an outfielder and first baseman on last year’s team. “I think that gave us a lot of motivation. … It feels great. It was definitely our goal to go to New York City at the beginning of the year. It’s great to finally have done it.”

St. Mary’s advances to the New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association final four on Tuesday at Hofstra University on Long Island. St. Mary’s will face the Long Island Diocese champion at 2 p.m. The winner of that game plays for the championship later that day against the winner of the Brooklyn versus Queens Diocese semifinal.

If the Lancers (9-5) hit anywhere near the way they have the past two games next week, they could very well become the latest Western New York team to win a state championship. They beat the top two seeds in the tournament over a three-day stretch by hammering the ball.

St. Mary’s pounded out 13 hits against Niagara University-softball commit Maria Gabriele during Monday’s 4-1 semifinal win over top-seeded Sacred Heart. The fourth-seeded Lancers collected 13 more hits off another college-bound pitcher Wednesday in Vikings hurler Elizabeth Bourne, who will attend University of Rochester.

Bourne’s pitching adversary, Hufford, had four of them and each of them came at key moments. Hufford’s two-run triple gave the Lancers a 3-2 lead in the top of the second. Hufford’s chopper up the middle with two outs in the fourth plated Carrie Kidder (2 for 4, two runs) and broke a 3-3 tie. Hufford’s next hit, a double to center to lead off the sixth, helped swing the momentum back in the Lancers’ favor after Nichols had tied the game at 6-6 with a three-run fifth. She scored what proved to be the game-winning run four batters later when Shelby Strausbaugh’s hot grounder to short with two outs proved to be too much for Ellis Smith to handle, resulting in Hufford scoring.

No. 9 hitter Onalee Duane went 2 for 4 with an RBI for the winners.

“We’ve been hitting a lot at my dad’s place,” said Hufford, whose father, Kevin, is head coach of the Lancers. “I think our bats have been strong all year, but they definitely came alive the last two games. We’ve gotten the hits when we’ve needed to and we’ve gotten the runners home when we’ve needed to.”

Hufford, the crafty lefty, retired six of the final seven batters she faced to earn the complete-game win.

Nichols strung together six of its 13 hits during a three-run fifth. The Vikings almost had more, but St. Mary’s gunned down two runners at the plate during the inning – including the second out with shortstop Annie Hamilton (2 for 5) relying on the team’s “yo-yo play” to trick a runner. Hamilton fielded a grounder, faked a throw to first and with the runner at third breaking for the plate on the pump fake, she fired to senior catcher Brie Poules for the easy out.

Olivia Zafuto went 3 for 4 with three runs for a Nichols team making its fourth straight title-game appearance. Classmate Maddie Welch went 3 for 4 with an RBI, while Jillian Boltz also went 3 for 4 for the Vikings (9-7). Zafuto, Welch, Smith, Bourne and Jessica Gates played in the title game each of their four seasons with Nichols.

“I’m proud of the way we rallied,” Vikings coach Holly Kemp said. “I wish them well in states.”

Coach Kevin Hufford said the commitment and dedication of the players throughout the winter and the season along with assistance from St. Mary’s alumnus and retired Canisius College coach Mike Rappl planted the seeds for this championship run. With Rappl helping with practice, Hufford had additional time to convince players into buying into a team-first culture.

“If they had bought into the-me-first instead of the-we-first attitude, they may have folded the tent early,” said Hufford, who was an assistant at Hutch-Tech last season and has also coached at Medaille.

They didn’t. They persevered and earned the right to be called champions.

“It’s really nice,” said Poules, who belted her second home run in as many games during St. Mary’s two-run fifth. “We have seven seniors on the team. It’s our first time going to New York City. It feels really good to get this far. It feels really good to redeem ourselves.”