Young Tigers earning their softball stripes

  • Newport head coach Sam McNeel shows Peyton Blackinton how far away she was from hitting a home run instead of a triple during their game against Newfound on Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Newport, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Newport's Alexis Durgin (27), Hailey Michaud (24), Peyton Blackin (4) and Erica Sayer (9) watch their game with Newfound in the fifth inning on Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Newport, N.H. Newport won. 7-5. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • Newport pitcher Tanya Sanchez winds up to throw during their game with Newfound on Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Newport, N.H. Newport won, 7-5. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

  • The Newport Tigers finish their game against Newfound with a 7-5 win in Newport, N.H., on Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/18/2022 9:34:47 PM
Modified: 5/18/2022 9:33:01 PM

NEWPORT, N.H. — The signature win the Newport High softball team appeared to have in its grasp was suddenly in danger of slipping through the Tigers’ fingertips.

Sophomore right-hander Tanya Sanchez was shutting out visiting Newfound on one hit through six innings as Newport led by seven. But the Bears’ bats came alive in the seventh as their first six hitters in the inning reached base, five of whom came around to score. The Tigers’ defense, though, helped Sanchez out, with substitute catcher Eden Ritondo throwing out a base stealer at second for the first out and right fielder Maddy Norris throwing out another runner at third to end the game.

The 7-5 win was critical for Newport, which started the season with seven straight wins — mostly against teams in the middle or bottom of the NHIAA Division III standings — but had lost three in a row since. Beating Newfound vaulted the Tigers ahead of the Bears in the penultimate week of the regular season, and Newport is now very much alive for a top-four seed in the upcoming playoffs.

“It was absolutely huge, because they only had two losses coming in and we had three,” Tigers head coach Sam McNeel said. “They’re one of the top teams. As long as we’re playing at our best, we can compete with any team out there.”

That top-four seed could go a long way toward helping Newport erase the narrative that has surrounded the Tigers’ program during McNeel’s tenure. Newport has had a winning record in each of McNeel’s first six seasons in charge, but his teams have never advanced past the first week of the postseason. The Tigers are coming off three straight quarterfinal losses, the most devastating of which came in 2018, when Newport enjoyed an undefeated regular season but fell to Mascenic on its home field.

McNeel, whose daughters Samantha (class of 2016) and Lacey (class of 2018) both played for him, said the playoff shortcomings weigh on him heavily.

“Both my daughters, they were phenomenal athletes; all they ever wanted was to bring a championship to Newport,” McNeel said. “It’s tough. You don’t always play the best-quality teams throughout the year, and then sometimes you get up against a team that has your number. That seems to be the thing that happens to us the last few years. We have a great team, but we just can’t put it together.”

This year’s group is one of the youngest teams McNeel has fielded — no seniors, two juniors and three sophomores to go along with 10 freshmen — but the Tigers think this could be the squad that breaks through to the final four.

Sanchez pitches just about every game and throws in the mid-50s with movement to both sides of the plate, and freshman Cheyenne Hannum is also capable of eating innings in the circle. Freshmen Peyton Blackinton and Lexi Durgin hit 1-2 in the batting order and spark the offense. Blackinton doubled and tripled against Newfound on Tuesday after hitting balls hard for outs her first two times at bat.

Newport also had a few players out of position against the Bears. Starting catcher Natasha Carpenter was in quarantine due to a family member testing positive for COVID-19, so Ritondo, who filled in behind the plate last season after starter Emmah O’Connor was injured, found out Tuesday morning that she would be catching.

“We had no practices. This morning, we got the text that (Carpenter) couldn’t come,” Ritondo said. “I kind of just jumped into the game, and I remembered the signs and all that stuff from last year, so it wasn’t too much of a difference. Tanya helped me tremendously.”

Ritondo typically plays shortstop, so Blackinton slid over to short from her normal position of second base while freshman Erica Sayer, an outfielder by trade, took over at second. O’Connor, a sophomore who switched from softball to track and field this spring, has continued to work out with the softball team and may resume her post at catcher if Carpenter misses significant time.

Following Wednesday’s home victory over Lebanon, the Tigers have five regular-season games left, the last four of which will be on the road. Newport’s best wins before the victory over Newfound were against Mascenic and Fall Mountain, and the Tigers will play both Newfound and Fall Mountain again next week.

They suffered their first loss on May 11 against third-place Monadnock and then dropped both ends of a doubleheader last Friday to rival Stevens, which plays in Division II. But Newport will not face first-place Prospect Mountain or second-place Campbell in the regular season.

“This win (over Newfound) is definitely good for our seeding and ranking,” Sanchez said. “Our past few games were definitely our hardest teams, so getting this game and having the confidence boost will help us. We need to push through and not get so far ahead of ourselves.”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at brosenberg@vnews.com or 603-727-3302.




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