North Kingstown (R.I.) softball returns to top of hill

North Kingstown High softball coach Adam Laliberte had a recent discussion with the school’s athletic director Howie Hague when Hague posed the following question: “How difficult is it for a team to play North Kingstown knowing it’s only going to score half a run?”

Rhode IslandThis difficult: En route to the Skippers’ first Division I championship since 2002 (and the second overall since the school added fast-pitch softball in 1993), North Kingstown pitchers Rachel Kantor and Kiara Oliver combined for a miniscule 0.46 ERA. And of the 24 runs this duo allowed, only 11 were earned.

Laliberte defied conventional wisdom by utilizing two pitchers in every game instead of deciding on one and asking her to hurl a complete game.

“I did something that most teams never do,” said Laliberte. “I threw both of them in every game. Rachel (a junior) pitched the first four innings and Kiara (a freshman) pitched the last three.

“We had two aces so we used them. Having that two-headed monster really paid off.”

The strategy paid off so well that the Skippers pitchers:

* Never allowed more than two runs in game after April 10.

* Combined for two no-hitters, three one-hitters, two three-hitters, and threw 15 shutouts while the Skippers recorded the first undefeated season in school history, 26-0, with the 26 victories obviously being a school record.

* Kantor and Oliver combined on a four-hitter as the Skippers beat Smithfield, 8-2, in the championship game.

Laliberte had reason to be skeptical about his team’s chances entering the season since it graduated three key players from the 2013 squad that lost in the winners’ bracket finals to Coventry. Pitcher Taylor Butler, who earned First Team All-State and First Team All-Division honors, plus First-Team All-Division selections in center fielder Kristina Rodriguez and First Team All-Division second baseman Liz Finell were all gone.

In addition, All-Division third baseman Devan Neary missed the entire 2014 season after undergoing elbow surgery.

“I thought there was a better chance of our winning the state championship than going undefeated,” said Laliberte. “Fortunately, we got better and better as we went along.

“I broke the schedule into quadrants. Our first four league games were against top teams. I was thinking the best case scenario was we start off at 2-2. At the end, I thought we would be 11-5. The top 16 teams make the playoffs and I hoped to grab one of the top six seeds and go from there. I hoped the team would grow and, at the end of the season, we would be playing our best.”

In retrospect, the Skippers made Laliberte look like a prophet.

Another reason for the Skippers’ success was the fact they outscored opponents by a combined margin of 234-24 – including 74-5 in the fourth and fifth innings. And each of the team’s top nine players batted over .300 with five batting over .400.

Kantor was as much of a factor at the plate as she was on the mound.

“Last year Rachel batted eighth in our lineup and was the designated player so she didn’t play in the field,” said Laliberte. “This year she moved from eighth to second in the lineup and hit .490 and stole 20 bases.

“She’s a bulldog. She’s a kid who wants the ball in her hand and the bat in her hand when the game’s on the line.”

Laliberte also freely admitted something else figured in the Skippers’ run to the state championship: luck.

“When you go undefeated there’s no question you have some luck,” he said. “In our first game with La Salle, we were losing 5-0 in the sixth and we scored five runs in the sixth to tie it. Then, Heather Jackson hit a walk-off homer in the seventh to win it.

“On Mother’s Day, against Mount St. Charles, we were trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the seven and with two outs we were down to our last strike. We scored nine runs and won 10-2.

“Believe me,” continued Laliberte. “You can’t make this up.”

But Laliberte already can start making plans for next season considering North Kingstown graduates only one player of note: Jackson, a catcher who was voted the Cox Communications Softball Player of the Year, receiving more votes than any other player who garnered First Team All-State honors.

“Losing Jackson is big,” Laliberte said in an understatement. “But we have very capable personnel returning. Obviously another undefeated season is beyond my wildest dreams.

“Next year we’ll have a senior-laden roster. I have to make them realize it will be harder the second time around. If they buy into it, we’re certainly capable of repeating.”

Mike Scandura has been covering high school sports, college basketball, football and hockey plus minor league baseball in Rhode Island since the early 1970s. A native of Oswego, N.Y, he’s a member of the Words Unlimited Hall of Fame which is the statewide organization of sportswriters, sportscasters and sports publicists.