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Softball: So far, 2017 is a hit for improved Clippers

The last time Southold/Greenport reached the high school softball playoffs, the current Clippers had not even been born. It was decades ago, all the way back in 1997.

That string of 19 playoff-less years may finally come to an end this year. Judging by the way the Clippers have been playing, not only do the playoffs look likely, but a Suffolk County Class C championship is a real possibility and who knows beyond that.

For a team that went 8-12 last year with a .235 team batting average, that would be quite a jump, but Southold’s new coach, Skip Gehring, is a believer, as are his players.

“It’s like a total” 180, said senior centerfielder Toni Esposito.

Hitting was a point of emphasis for Southold since the start of preseason practice. The Clippers take hundreds of swings a day and the improvement has been as obvious as a well-struck line drive.

“The difference is phenomenal,” Esposito said. “I love it.”

Over a four-game stretch, for instance, Southold had 66 hits, said Gehring.

That doesn’t include Tuesday’s game, an 11-2 defeat of Port Jefferson at Southold High School. Esposito, the leadoff hitter, set the tone, going 3-for-4 with a walk and three runs scored in support of pitcher Ashley Hilary’s two-hitter.

Hilary had a no-hitter through 4 1/3 innings. Was she aware of it?

“I was but I was trying not to think about it,” she said.

The junior righthander said she has never thrown a no-hitter and had a one-hitter once.

Tuesday she no-hit every Port Jefferson batter not named Jackie Brown. Brown tagged a one-out single in the fifth to break Hilary’s no-hit bid. Then Hilary was one out away from a one-hitter when Brown slugged the ball to leftfield and slid in to second base for a double.

“She’s doing a much better job this year because she’s changing speeds,” Gehring said of Hilary, who walked one, had three strikeouts and allowed one earned run.

Meanwhile, Southold’s improved offense produced at least one run in five of the six innings it batted. The Clippers (4-3 overall and in League X) were unfortunate not to have scored more, leaving 12 runners on base. They drew 12 walks (three by Katie Tuthill) to go with seven hits.

Southold opened up with a three-run first inning. The runs scored on Samantha Baldwin’s bases-loaded walk, Hannah Sutton being hit by a pitch with the bases full and Madison Hilton’s sacrifice fly.

The following inning, singles by Esposito and Tuthill made it 4-0.

Port Jefferson (1-7, 1-7) plated a run in the third. Chiara Rabeno reached base on a dropped popup, made her way to third and scored on a Brown groundout.

But Southold didn’t seem bothered. The Clippers came back with four runs in the fourth, all scored without the benefit of a hit. Five walks and an error did the trick.

“It’s more like we’re all cool, calm and collected now,” Hilary said. “I think the biggest improvement is batting because last year we only had like three or four girls that were consistently hitting, but now everyone on the team can hit.”

Brown scored on a wild pitch in the fifth for Port Jefferson’s second run.

But Southold padded its lead with a two-out rally in the sixth, when a dropped fly allowed Felecia Kayal to score and Evelyn Cummings walked with the bases loaded.

Perhaps a bellwether of what the future holds for Southold was seen in its 4-3 upset of Bishop McGann-Mercy on April 5.

Looking at Southold’s lineup, one sees batters like Esposito, Tuthill, Cummings and Baldwin, who can all hit for power.

Said Esposito, “We’re playing with passion and dedication and it’s great, and I see us going pretty far.”

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Photo caption: Hitting has been a clear improvement for Southold/Greenport, with batters like Annie Lincoln making good contact. (Credit: Garret Meade)