NORTON — Having advanced to the MIAA Division 2 South Sectional final for two consecutive seasons, but a year removed from having Gatorade Softball Player of the Year in the Commonwealth via pitcher Kelly Nelson, the Norton High softball team began this season with merely three seniors on the roster.
About the only person who owned the foresight and faith in the Lancers was Norton softball coach Wade Lizotte.
“I felt like we’ve built this program the past five years, I knew the talent that we had, absolutely I expected us to be here,” Lizotte said before practice Friday, putting the Lancers through their paces in preparation for their third straight MIAA Division 2 South championship game on Saturday.
After the No. 5 seed Lancers (18-4) stunned top-seeded Greater New Bedford Voke in the semifinal round, Norton faces, arguably, the second-best representative from the South Coast Conference in No. 6 seed Fairhaven at 1 p.m. Taunton High’s Jack Tripp Field.
The Lancers have advanced into the spotlight once again as senior catcher Nicole Grainger, senior left fielder Madison Correia and senior first baseman-pitcher Meghan Vegnani have continued to carry on the tradition of success, and the banner of achievement in the postseason for the Norton High softball program.
“Getting these kids ready to play at the varsity level, that’s my job,” Lizotte said of the many newcomers in the Lancer starting lineup to start the season, including junior pitcher Sofia Knopf, who had less than a handful of varsity innings pitched on her resume.
“You look at the talent that was coming up from the junior varsity team, they were 18-1 last year and you kind of knew what their potential was,” Lizotte added. “It was my job to make sure that they’re in the right spots (positions), in the best position to compete and succeed.”
And the achievement of earning the Tri-Valley League championship, beating No. 12 seeded Dighton-Rehoboth (2-1), No. 4 seeded Falmouth (6-0) and the Bears of Greater New Bedford (3-1) in post-season play en route to the title tilt rests with the leadership exhibited by Vegnani, Correia and Grainger.
“When Sofia was hurt at the start of the year, it was Meg (Vegnani) who got us off to a great start,” Lizotte emphasized of the Bridgewater State-bound Lancer. “She’s just a super-sweet, super-smart girl. She knows the game and sets the tone for our winning ways.”
Grainger has been a four-year starter behind the plate at catcher for Norton, the link to the Lancer lore of yesteryear — a 21-2 record as the No. 1 seed and a Division 2 South semifinalist during her freshman year in 2016; a 25-2 record as the No. 2 seed for the Division 2 South Tournament champions in 2017; and last year, a 21-2 record as the No. 1 seed for the sectional semifinalists.
“She’s the brains of the operation,” Lizotte said of the Stonehill College-bound Grainger, who is also the Lancer captain. “Not only is she academically focused, she has that calming effect behind the plate too. And she has an incredible personality as well.”
Correia has been the emotional hotwire for Norton.
Heading to CCRI, “she tells it like it is,” Lizotte said. “She provides that vocal leadership. She practices what she preaches. She’s the one that gives the team the personality that it has, which is a group of great girls.”
The Lancers will have a tough assignment in the Blue Devils (18-5), who have outscored their three Division 2 South Tournament foes by a 27-4 margin.
Fairhaven was a 2016 Division 2 South finalist. In beating Plymouth South 13-4 in its semifinal round game, the Blue Devils had hits (13 overall) from seven of the nine batters in the order, plating four runs in the third inning and five more in the seventh inning.
“Fairhaven can hit and they’re athletic,” Lizotte said. “They’re a team that knows how to make plays, so we’re going to have to bring our ‘A Game’ to the field to give ourselves a chance.”