As a steady rain began to fall in the seventh inning of Thursday’s Public League softball championship game, spectators scattered toward their cars in an attempt to dodge the downpour.
Meanwhile, sisters Laura and Larissa Smith remained firmly entrenched in their spots on the field at La Salle University. Larissa, the experienced senior, stood in left field, while Laura, the young but talented sophomore, attempted to close out a 10-7 win for Franklin Towne Charter over Girls High.
After a one-out walk, the next batter for Girls High scorched a Laura Smith pitch toward the gap in left-center; Larissa, a part of the Towne softball program for four long years, somehow ran down the liner with the grace of a gazelle, making an extremely difficult play look routine for at least the third time that day. With the ball in her older sister’s glove and a weight off her shoulders, Laura Smith buckled down, recorded the final out on a grounder back to the mound and helped deliver Towne’s first-ever league softball title.
“She made some amazing plays, and they saved me,” Laura Smith said later of her sister’s defensive heroics. “We’re very close, and she’s always been there for me on and off the field. That was true today in the outfield. She made some catches that other girls just wouldn’t.”
For her part, an understated Larissa just wanted to finally get it all over with.
“That seventh inning, it just felt like forever standing out there,” she said. “My heart was in my belly the entire time. When we got that final out, my first thought was, ‘Is this real?’ It’s been forever, and I’ve waited so long for this.”
It’s been quite the ride for Larissa Smith, the longest-tenured player on a roster that features just three seniors (also right fielder Lindsay Kane and designated player Kim Nunez), as well as her head coach, Jen Daley, an alumnus of the program.
Daley played second base for Towne before she graduated in 2004 with some unfinished business. She returned in 2008 to teach math at her alma mater; then, in 2010, Daley took the reins of her beloved softball program. In that first season, Larissa Smith was the only freshman to make the team during spring tryouts.
It’s surely been a long, winding road in getting to this point. Towne softball has had success in the past, winning a Class AAA title and advancing as far as the Public League postseason semifinals in recent seasons. But the team had never been quite this close, especially after taking a 2-0 first-inning lead on Thursday.
That lead evaporated quickly as Girls High tied it up and then hung a four-spot of unearned runs on Laura Smith in the third. Down 6-2, Towne’s players never panicked; and why should they after erasing a five-run lead to earn a 13-12 win over the same opponent on May 6.
“When they came back to the dugout after that inning, they were really quiet,” Daley said of her team. “I reminded them, ‘We’ve been here before, now let’s get our bats going.’ The whole game, even when we got down 6-2, I kept thinking that we could do it.”
Towne got one back in the third, and two more in the fourth, including Nunez tagging and scoring from third on a routine pop-up to second base. Daley’s team stayed aggressive and capitalized on seemingly every Girls High mistake from the third inning on. Down 7-5 in the fifth with runners on second and third, Towne tied the game when both base runners somehow scored on a dropped third strike and botched throw to first base.
After Smith retired Girls High in order in the sixth, Towne broke a 7-7 tie when shortstop Val Scalici scored on second baseman Deanna Robinson’s run-scoring double to right-center. First baseman Shelby Chepress added an RBI single to right two batters later.
From there, it was up to the Smith sisters to close things down, and they were more than happy to answer the call.
“Our team is always aggressive on the bases. We always want to try for more and get in the other team’s head,” Larissa said. “That’s one of our strong suits. Once we get on, we know what we need to do to score.”
Laura Smith certainly appreciated the extra push from her offense, as well as the defense behind her rallying after a rough third inning. Larissa Smith saved at least two or three runs on her own, running down several difficult fly balls and even gunned down a runner at third who tried to stretch a double into a triple. As a result, Laura settled down, allowing just a run and four hits the rest of the way.
“That absolutely helped me out, seeing them fight back for me,” Laura said. “It inspired me. When my sister made those plays, I relaxed and calmed down. We came together when we needed to and we fixed ourselves.”
Perhaps nobody was more thrilled than Daley, a program lifer who raced out of the dugout into the celebratory pile-up with the rest of her team when Laura Smith recorded the final out. They also made sure to dump the remaining contents of the water cooler on Daley after the game.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” the coach said a few hours later on the phone. “Coming full circle, you always think of that moment when you’ll get the trophy and water dumped all over you. We’re just this little charter school, but we set out to show we belonged with everyone else. To see their faces after we won … it’s something I’ll never forget.”
As a result of winning its first Public League softball title, Towne advanced to Wednesday’s city title game against Bonner-Prendie, which defeated St. Hubert for the Catholic League championship. Daley will cherish at least one more game with this group before welcoming almost her entire roster back in 2014.
“We lose some good players, namely Larissa, who’s been with me all four years,” she said. “But thank goodness I still have Laura for two more years, which makes the transition easier. We have a really great group of girls, and I’m so excited for the future of the program. They’ve already told me that they don’t want to give the trophy back.”
In the end, nothing could stop Towne, which outscored its opponents 52-14 in its three playoff contests. Not a four-run deficit, and certainly not an oncoming rainstorm.
“From the beginning, we were never the best team, but we improved so much,” Larissa Smith said. “I’ve been on this team for four years, so this is a big thing for me. Franklin Towne is my second home … my second family. I’m still speechless. I don’t know how to act.”
“We haven’t won much, at least not something like this, in quite a while,” Laura Smith added. “We’ve all grown closer because of what we’ve shared together. Towne athletics have come so far. We knew it would be intense out there, and we proved what we wanted to, that Franklin Towne Charter is a winner.” ••