Top Seed Belmont Girls’ Hoops Tame Panthers In Playoff Opener, 61-35 [VIDEO]

Photo: All photos by David Flanagan.

Too strong, too tall, too talented.

Those were the attributes that top-seed Belmont High Girls’ Basketball demonstrated in its Division 1 North playoff opener against Beverly High School at the Coach Lyons’ Court on Thursday, Feb. 28 as the Marauders came away with a 61-35 victory. 

“The last two games [of the season] we stumbled a little bit compared to the rest of the season,” said Belmont Head Coach Melissa Hart of losses to powerhouses Cathedral and Franklin high schools in the Comcast tournament. “So it was important to get our confidence up and back.” 

Despite a long layoff, the 20-2 Marauders came out read hot as sophomore forward Maiya Bergdorf scored eight of Belmont’s first 10 points as the home team took a 10-0 lead as the Marauders dominated the rebounding chances. 

Beverly would break into the scoring column off a 3 that banked high off the backboard by sophomore Kylie McCarthy, which sparked a 10-4 run for the Panthers cutting Belmont’s lead to 14-10 at the end of the first quarter. 

In response, Hart sent out her “tall” lineup of seniors center Jess Giorgio, forward Ella Gagnon, forward Jane Mahon, Bergdorf as a guard with freshman Nina Minicozzi playing the point. Playing a tight half-court zone, Belmont closed down the inside for Beverly and limited the Panthers to one change under the boards. Mahon hit three midrange baskets and Bergdorf (18 points in her first career playoff action) had an easy two under the basket from Minicozzi to up the Marauders advantage to 10, 22-12.

When Giorgio missed the backend of two free throws, Minicozzi (14 “quiet” points) grabbed the rebound and put the ball through the hoop to finish the 1-2 three-point play, Belmont was up 25-12 with 90 seconds left in the second quarter and would go into the half up 27-16.

The game was decided early in the third when Bergdorf hit a pair of driving hoops and Giorgio hit a shake-and-bake hook shot before taking in a pinpoint pass for an easy two to stretch the lead to 19, 35-16, two minutes into the game. Bergdorf would finish off her eight-point quarter with a steal and basket followed by a pass from senior guard Megan Tan as the Marauders outscored Beverly 20-8 in the third to lead 47-24 entering the fourth.

“I just went out there with the mentality we’re going to have a team win,” said Bergdorf.

Notable performances in the game were sophomore center Emma McDevitt who came off the bench for 10 points and stellar defense and sophomore Kiki Christofori who started and gave yet another prime example of dogged defending against Beverly’s backcourt.

Belmont is scheduled to meet Middlesex League rival Woburn on Monday, March 4 in Belmont at 7 p.m., pending further weather reports. The winner of Monday’s game will meet Andover in the D1N semifinals possibly on Wednesday, March 6; if Belmont wins, the game will be played in Belmont.

Sports: Belmont Baseball Wins In Extras Over Beverly, #1 Danvers Monday

Photo: Cal Christofori.

Resiliency – the ability to bounce back after getting punched in the gut – is a quality discovered only when tested by adversity. In sports, after an opponent’s blow has turned the tables on the game, some teams will fall apart. But others show that ability to return to the fight with determination and a will to win.

When Belmont High School sophomore pitcher Nate Espelin threw what he called later “a fat one” which Beverly High School catcher Luke Samperi sent over the short left field fence for a two-out, two run, game tying home run in the bottom of the eighth inning, the blast could have done in the visiting Marauders in their first-round matchup of the MIAA Division 2 North sectionals.

But as Samperi crossed the plate and joined the wild celebration on the field, Belmont’s senior captain Cole Bartels – who just saw his seven innings, two-hit, 11 strikeout dominate performance go for naught – began yelling, “We’re still in this. We’re going to win this. Stay in the game!”

And his teammates responded, soon speaking confidently that they would come away with a victory in this unexpected away game.

It just took a while. Like five extra, extra innings. But the combination of outstanding relief pitching from junior Cal Christofori, solid defense, and clutch hitting by the middle of Belmont’s lineup resulted in a 13-inning 4-2 victory from the Marauders over the Panthers.

“Our guys plugged away, scratched and clawed and finally got a little bit of a timely hit in the 13th inning,” said Jim Brown, Belmont’s head coach. 

“This was awesome, playing in games like this, extra innings when everthing is on the line. This is why you play sports, these are most fun games,” said Christofori, the team’s starting catcher who has yet to give up an earned run in relief this season.

The game – which began at 1 p.m. on a school day to accommodate the Beverly High senior prom scheduled for that night – between a pair of 14-6 teams was expected to be a close one. Facing Belmont’s southpaw was Beverly’s sophomore phenom Spenser Brown (1-6, single and three strikeouts) who was named the league’s co-MVP earlier in the week batting over .450 as well as being a starting pitcher.

Both pitchers got out of early jams with Bartel facing Panthers reaching third in the second and third innings. In the bottom of the third, Christofori smelled out an attempted squeeze bunt and threw to third base David Bailey to get the runner attempting to return to the base. The junior All-Star than ended the inning by easily throwing out Panther’s Sean Hanlon attempting to steal second.

But for most of his time on the mound, Bartels’ fastball – reaching 90 mph – and a nasty slider that looped in to hit the outside corner on right handers put the team’s ace in position to sit down batters. In his seven innings, Bartels struck out two Panthers in five.

On the other side, Brown kept Beverly in the game as Marauder batters could not figure out the youngster, sending lazy flyballs in the outfield or grounders to the Panthers’ air-tight defense.

In the first extra frame, Belmont got started with one out when Christofori’s high infield pop fly was dropped for an error. Left fielder Connor Dacey (2-7, two singles) singled followed by Bartels who was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Second base Noah Reilly then took a full count offering for a ball that allowed Matt Kearns, who ran for Christofori, to walk home with the game’s first run. Shortstop Steve Ruzzuto followed with a slow roller to third that allowed Dacey to race home with what appeared to be the all-important insurance run.

In the bottom of the eighth, Espelin hit shortstop Garrett Desmond with a pitch before getting the next two Panthers out on long fly balls. But his one mistake to Samperi – who would go 1 for 6 in the game with a home run and five strikeouts (!) – set into motion what would be consecutive extra-inning playoff marathons between the teams as they played a 16 inning game in 2014.

Coming into the game in the ninth, Christofori relied on his fastball and changeup to keep the hosts off the bases, finishing his five innings with three strikeouts while giving up only one single with only one runner reaching second.

“He’s tough as nails. He’s one of those throw back players, he always wants the ball. He may not have the best stuff but he has the best determination out there,” said Brown of Christofori, a three-sport starter (football, hockey, baseball).

In extras, Belmont began hitting their stride at the plate against Beverly’s reliever senior captain Dylan Stevens. The Marauders collected 10 of their 13 hits – all singles – from the ninth inning on.

“We just wanted to continue to string hits together and look for someone to make a big play,” said Brown. 

It would be a lucky 13th inning for Belmont which started with a sharp single up the middle by center fielder Bryan Goodwin (2-6, two singles) who advanced to second on a passed ball. Pinch-hitter Trevor Kelly beat the throw to first on a sacrifice bunt to give Belmont players at the corner with no outs. After Christofori popped out, Dacey’s infield hit that pinballed around the mound brought Goodwin home for the go ahead third run. Bartels followed with a long sacrifice fly to right that had Kelly waltzing home for the final run.

Christofori allowed the Panther to finally head off to their prom with a 1-2-3 final half inning.

Belmont will again be on the North Shore on Monday, June 6, to meet the number 1 seed Danvers in a repeat of last year’s quarterfinal that Belmont lost in extra innings, 3-1. In last year’s game, Bartels and Danvers’ ace Andrew Olszak pitch dual one-hit masterpieces over eight innings.

“If [Bartels] can go [Monday], he’ll go,” said Brown.

The game starts at 4 p.m. at the town’s middle school playing field.

IMG_1319 IMG_1265 IMG_1257 IMG_1255 IMG_1243 IMG_1205 IMG_1183 IMG_1167 IMG_1153 IMG_1149 IMG_1137 IMG_1123 IMG_1116 IMG_1105 IMG_1093 IMG_1090 IMG_1087 IMG_1085 IMG_1063 IMG_1031 IMG_1021 IMG_1015 IMG_1006 IMG_0995 IMG_0987 IMG_0980 IMG_0976 IMG_0966 IMG_0958 IMG_0946 IMG_0938 IMG_0934 IMG_0924 IMG_0912 IMG_0905 IMG_0903 IMG_0901 IMG_0898 IMG_0892

Snubbed By MIAA, Belmont On Road Against Familiar Foe Thursday in Playoff Opener

Photo: Cole Bartels is on the mound today.

The bunting and flags are still on the fences and poles of Brendan Grant Field in Belmont.

“Leave them up,” Belmont High School Baseball Head Coach Jim Brown told the facilities department a day after the end of the regular season this past weekend. 

With a 14-6 record and a .700 percentage winning record, the long-time Marauders manager was certain this Belmont team had earned a first-round home game for the 2016 Division 2 North Sectional playoffs.

“Last year, that record was a five seed,” said Brown as he oversaw practice on Wednesday afternoon. (The first eight ranked teams are rewarded with a home game.) “It would be great to our fans who come out in big numbers to support us.”

Well, no one told Brown or Belmont that the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing board for all high school sports, could find a way to place the Marauders on the outside looking in.

With Marblehead, Melrose and Beverly also with 14-6 records and three spots left in the top eight, the MIAA used a combination of coin flips and numbers out of a hat that resulted in Belmont being relegated to the 9th seed, which is the third year in a row Belmont has found themselves in the inevitable position. 

The ninth position is the cruelest seed as it finds a winning program forced to go on the road against an equally proficient team. And if victorious, the next game will be an away game against the number one seed, which this season is Danvers. 

“Call it Belmont luck,” said Brown.

Unlike a growing majority of athletic conferences which are using data (such as using a team’s “power” ranking which gives greater weight to wins against stronger teams) and head-to-head competitions to determine rankings with teams of equal records, the MIAA continues to use coin-flips to pick team positions.

“They didn’t take in consideration that we beat Melrose (9-2) in the regular season,” said Brown. Melrose is the seven seed in the sectionals. 

Not only is Belmont back in the ninth seed, they will be playing against a very familiar post-season opponent. Thursday’s opening round match will be against Beverley High School, marking the fifth time in the past seven years the Marauders and Panthers have clashed in the first round of the playoffs.

The last time they met in 2014 resulted in a four hour, 16 inning ultra-marathon (a regular game is seven innings) that the Marauders won 4-2. Belmont then met first seed Gloucester 17 hours later and lost 3-2. 

And if there wasn’t enough adversity facing Belmont, the game will be played today, Thursday, June 2 at 1 p.m. at Beverly High School rather than Friday due to Beverly’s prom which is scheduled for tonight. 

Brown said he and Beverly’s head coach, Dave Wilburn, are similar in each likes to put pressure on opposing defenses by playing “small” ball in the post season. 

“There’s not a lot of runs coming from this game so every run will count big,” said Brown. 

Belmont will face a Beverly offense sparked by their league co-MVP, sophomore third-base Spencer Brown (.438). Brown will counter with starting senior ace Cole Bartels who has struck out 75 batters this season with a 1.00 ERA . 

“They’ll see a lot of Bartels,” said Brown.