The C. Milton Wright High School softball program is remarkably distinguished.
Since the Harford County School began offering the sport in 1981, the Mustangs have never endured a losing season and have a 614-180 overall record (.773). C. Milton was particularly dominant from 1981-1985, when it won four Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association state championships.
The Mustangs won a fifth state title in 2006.
Despite their illustrious history, adding a sixth state championship had proved difficult for the Mustangs. C. Milton won MPSSAA 3A North regional titles from 2014-2016 and reached the state championship game in 2015 before coming up short.
To Russell Kovach, the team's head coach since 2008, fielding errors were the most consistent reason C. Milton failed to win state titles during that three-year span.
That period of frustration ended this season when C. Milton (18-7) won the MPSSAA 3A state title May 27.
"It still gnaws at me a little bit just talking about it. This could easily have been the fourth state championship for C. Milton Wright in a row if we played more error-free ball," Kovach said. "What was the difference this year? We only made one error in the state championship and none in the state semifinal."
For how well C. Milton finished its season, the Mustangs slumped to start the year, losing four of their first six games.
While many of the games were close, the low point was an 11-1 mercy-rule loss against Caravel Academy from Delaware April 19, which dropped the Mustangs to 4-6 on the season. After that loss, Jim French, who has been an assistant coach with C. Milton for 24 years, noticed a difference beginning to take hold within the team.
"That loss in Delaware opened some eyes. After that, things began to fall into place, and there was a different sort of focus," French said. "They always practice well. My philosophy is you're going to play the way you practice, and you could see it all starting to come together."
What really came together was C. Milton Wright's defense, and a lot of that had to do with the team's use of its utility player, junior Michelle Cisco.
During the first half of the season, Cisco played third base and outfield, two areas she can play at a high level. However, it was challenging for Kovach to find the best spot to play Cisco to most benefit the team.
The emergence of senior Jill Petee in left field became crucial. She solidified the outfield for C. Milton, allowing Cisco to join junior shortstop Emily Kim, freshman second baseman Meghan Reed and sophomore first baseman Lauren Meyers in forming a slick infield defense.
A beneficiary of the team's defense was junior pitcher Katie Murphy, who Kovach said got better as the season went on. Murphy also was aided in the circle by Kim, who began to pitch more later in the year in a relief role.
"Having strong pitchers like Katie and Emily are big confidence boosters because you know if the other team gets a hit, it isn't likely it'll be a line drive or a great shot," Cisco said. "Both hit their spots really well, which means what the other team does put in play should be very fieldable."
C. Milton won its next seven games after the loss to Caravel Academy.
"One of the better things we did was not lingering on previous accomplishments. Once we won a game, it was onto the next," Kim said. "We had the mentality of needing to do better because we knew the games were going to get harder."
A loss to Baltimore County powerhouse Eastern Tech rounded out Milton's regular season, but the defeat didn't deter the Mustangs. They opened the postseason with wins against North Harford, Aberdeen and Towson before besting Lansdowne in the MPSSAA 3A North regional final, 2-1.
The victory had C. Milton back in the state semifinals, where it faced Northeast from Anne Arundel County. C. Milton took a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning, but Northeast rallied in the fifth. The Mustangs were able to limit the damage to just one run, though, as Petee made a spectacular diving catch in left field to turn what would have been an extra-base hit into just a sacrifice fly.
"In so many ways that's the play of the game, but you could also say it's the play of our season," Kovach said. "If she doesn't make that catch, that ball is definitely going to the fence for a triple, if not a home run."
Northeast rallied, but the Mustangs continued to play great defense, and Kim came in to get the final three outs to clinch a 5-2 victory. That sent the Mustangs to the championship game against Huntingtown, which had beaten the Mustangs in the state semifinals in 2016.
Unlike the previous three seasons, C. Milton finished its season by playing one of its best all-around games of the year. Murphy turned in a great pitching performance, throwing all seven innings and holding Huntingtown to five hits, all of which came in the first three innings. The defense continued to make plays, and Cisco provided the offense, going 2-for-3 with five RBIs.
Cisco's three-run home run in the sixth increased
C. Milton's lead to 6-1, which would be the final score of the game.
"She threw my sweet pitch -- inside, right at the belt that I can just drive," Cisco said. "It completely changed the momentum of the game. It got Huntingtown down because they knew how tough it would be to come back."
This time, there was no costly error to ruin the game for C. Milton.
"It was surreal. Getting close and then losing in previous years definitely made us hungrier," Murphy said. "Finally coming back this year and achieving it felt unbelievable. Having the whole team together crowding home plate after the final play was incredible. It was the most amazing feeling I've ever had."
Kovach and his players have already begun to think about how amazing 2018 could be for the program. Petee is this year's lone senior.
"Now that we've done this and it'll be essentially the same team minus Jill, the bar will be set higher," Reed said. "We can do as well as we did this year as long as we keep the intensity up and work towards that goal."
Issue 234: June 2017