An assistant coach for Hall-Dale performs a dirt angel in celebration of Hall-Dale’s win over Madison in the Class C South championship game Thursday at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

STANDISH — The Hall-Dale softball team was ahead by three runs, and only three outs away from the state championship game. But trouble was brewing.

Madison, the two-time defending state champions, had two runners on. One of its best hitters was at the plate. And over at shortstop, senior Sarah Benner wondered if perhaps heartbreak was in the making.

I was getting a little nervous,” she said. “Under pressure a lot of teams cave, and I didn’t want to be that team. And I was kind of scared that we would be that team.”

And then Hall-Dale altered the narrative. Madison’s Jerzey Tewksbury hit a line drive right back to freshman pitcher Ashlynn Donahue. Donahue then struck out the next two batters. Game over.

In a bright lights moment in a big-stage game, the Bulldogs (16-0) were ready. But it’s been a journey to that point for a Hall-Dale team that, while talented, needed to catch up mentally with what it already knew it could do physically.

You look at our teams from previous years, and there were players that were freshmen in high pressure situations in previous years, we absolutely would have caved,” Benner said. “I even say this spring … we would have, because we didn’t have the experience, we didn’t have the playoff feel.”

Madison’s Lillian Levesque (24) dives safely back to second base before getting doubled up by Hall-Dale shortstop Sarah Benner in the Class C South championship game Thursday at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Coach Steve Acedo said that improved mental toughness has been the biggest storyline of the season for his team, which will play Dexter for the Class C title Saturday at 12:30 at Saint Joseph’s College.

“If they make a mistake, it’s not like it’s been in the past, that they fall apart a little bit and have another one,” Acedo said. “If they mess something up, they just buckle down and get the next out.”

For years, Hall-Dale had been a contender but had failed to make a run through the C South bracket. After losing in the regional final as the second seed in 2014, the Bulldogs lost in the semifinals in 2015 and ’16, the quarterfinals in 2017, the preliminary round in 2018 and the semifinals again in 2019.

So when Hall-Dale’s talent and potential made it the popular pick to come out of C South, Acedo knew the team still had something to prove.

We only had four players coming back, everyone else was new,” he said. “So everyone was saying ‘Why are we the team to beat? We’ve only got four returning kids.’ I said ‘I don’t know, maybe we’re just the ones they’re picking this year. We’ve got to do it on the field before we worry about anything else.'”

Hall-Dale third baseman Lily Platt plays the ground ball against Madison in the Class C South championship game Thursday at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

There was also the matter of dealing with the C South juggernaut. For Hall-Dale, all roads to their goals ran through Madison, with its six regional titles over the last seven seasons.

When the two teams met on May 10, Hall-Dale’s confidence was in a precarious spot.

That first game that we played them, we went in and we were so scared,” junior center fielder Tanley Tibbetts said. “We were so nervous. We were like ‘We can do it,’ but honestly, we were struggling to think that we could actually do it.”

This time, it was the Bulldogs’ inexperienced players who provided the example.

The older ones are the ones with the mentality of ‘They’re a big team, we can’t beat them,'” Benner said. “But then having all those kids that don’t have that mindset, they helped fuel us. They don’t care who it is. They taught us, no matter who we’re playing, we just have to play.”

Hall-Dale won that game 4-3, getting a three-run rally in the bottom of the seventh. Since then, the players said, the mood has changed.

I think that was definitely the moment where we were like ‘guys, we can do this,'” Tibbetts said. “‘We can go to states and we can win it all.'”

Hall-Dale’s Lily Platt (4) celebrates a run scored by teammate Rita Benoit against Madison in the Class C South championship game Thursday at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

After getting over the hump against their Mountain Valley Conference rivals, Hall-Dale proved it could do it again Thursday, with the 3-0 victory in the C South final.

“Finally being able to knock Madison off, it just has shown our growth throughout the whole entire season,” Tibbetts said. “We’ve come a long way since the beginning of the season when we first played them.”

“Coming here they were confident that we beat them once, as long as we played our game we could beat them again,” Acedo said. “That’s the mentality (with which) we went into the game.”

It’s the one the Bulldogs will take into Saturday as well.

“I’m just happy we made it to this point. They checked all the boxes they gave themselves,” Acedo said. “They earned it to be here. They deserved to be here.”

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