CLIFTON PARK — It was one of Ava Caputo’s first thoughts after waking up Saturday, that the Section II Class AA championship softball game she was looking forward to playing that afternoon wasn’t guaranteed.
A Shenendehowa senior, Caputo — who, like all softball players last season, lost her 2020 season because of restriction related to the novel coronavirus pandemic — was on the Plainsmen’s girls’ soccer team this past fall that had its league championship game called off minutes before it was supposed to start because of COVID-19 protocols.
So, Caputo wondered Saturday morning, could it happen again?
“Given the year we’ve had,” Caputo said, “you never know what you can expect.”
But, unlike that fall championship game that was canceled after both teams had warmed up, Saturday’s first pitch was delivered as scheduled — and, then, Shenendehowa and Bethlehem battled through a classic that saw the Plainsmen prevail 7-6 on their home field.
A smile on her face — and one easily visible since masks stopped being required earlier this month for outdoor high school sporting events in the state — the nerves Caputo felt early Saturday were long gone after a celebration that included her team parading along the outfield fence to high-five its supporters in the crowd.
“I feel amazing,” Caputo said. “This is just an unreal moment.”
This spring’s Section II championship tournaments are the first formal ones contested since the winter season of the 2019-20 school year. There are no state championships — again — this spring, but that lack of an upcoming state tournament to prepare for didn’t seem to faze anyone after a back-and-forth area final. Shenendehowa athletic director Chris Culnan said he felt Saturday’s final was the first time since early in March 2020 that “I really felt we were back and doing normal things” at a high school sporting event.
“The energy from the crowd. The back and forth between the teams. The excitement of it all,” Culnan said. “Even though we’re not going beyond this [to a state tournament], for our girls to win their last game on their home field — we’re just finally starting to get [back to normal], it seems like. It was so exciting to be able to see them celebrate.”
Saturday’s championship game provided plenty of excitement. Bethlehem scored a pair of runs in the top of the first inning, and that set the tone for a fantastic final. Shenendehowa scored in each of the first three innings, including four runs in the third to seemingly take control with a 6-3 lead. Bethlehem, though, tied the game in the fifth inning on a wild sequence that saw junior Anna Cleary register an RBI hit, then score the tying run on the play after a Shenendehowa error.
In the bottom half of the fifth inning, Shenendehowa answered. A hard-hit live drive landed Caputo on base after a Bethlehem error. Caputo stole second base, and sophomore Kelsey Higgins did everything she could to steady herself in the batter’s box with two outs and her teammate in scoring position.
“But I was nervous out of my mind,” Higgins said.
It didn’t show. Facing a 2-2 count after fouling off multiple pitches, Higgins singled to left field and Caputo raced home to give the Plainsmen the go-ahead run.
From there, Shenendehowa senior Mariana Abate took care of the rest. Abate was perfect in the game’s final two innings, as the senior finished off a complete-game win that saw her strike out seven and allow four earned runs.
Cleary, Bethlehem’s pitcher, allowed three earned runs in her six innings of work. At the plate, she hit a home run and had three RBIs to lead her team’s offense.
“It was a battle. It was a great game,” Bethlehem head coach Piera McGaughan said. “It was intense the entire time. The girls gave it everything they had. They all had so much heart.”
Cleary tossed 134 pitches in Saturday’s final. That came two days after tossing 153 pitches in Bethlehem’s semifinal win, which was played two days after Cleary used 70 pitches to help lift Bethlehem to its quarterfinal win.
“She’s amazing. She gives it all she has every day,” McGaughan said. “But every girl on this team gave it their all. That was so exciting to see.”
Bethlehem (No. 2, 13-3) had defeated Shenendehowa (No. 1, 19-2) in the regular season, dealing the Plainsmen a 3-0 loss on May 22. Cleary struck out eight, and only allowed one hit and one walk in that shutout win.
“She had our number that day,” Shenendehowa head coach Chris Farquharson had said after his team’s semifinal win Thursday against Guilderland.
On Saturday, Shenendehowa matched that hit total with its first batter. Caputo started the bottom of the first with a double, the first of her three hits in the game. That opening double, which hit off the outfield fence, “set the tone for the rest of the game offensively” for a Shenendehowa team that scored at least one run in four of its six offensive frames.
“I think everybody was like, ‘OK, I think we can hit now,’” Farquharson said of the confidence-building nature of Caputo’s opening blast. “I think that just piggy-backed — that momentum — throughout the game.”
Besides her three hits, Caputo had two RBIs and scored two runs. Michelle Osborn had two hits for Shenendehowa, while senior McKenna Barry and junior Hannah Smith joined Higgins in contributing one RBI.
Caputo said multiple seniors from last year’s Shenendehowa team were in attendance at Saturday’s game. Caputo said the championship win was as much for them as the players on this year’s team.
“We’re just so excited, especially given the fact that we couldn’t play last year,” Caputo said. “This just means so much to all of us.”
Bethlehem 201 030 0 — 6 5 4
Shenendehowa 114 010 x — 7 9 1