Div. 5 softball: With Hopedale on deck, Turners Falls two wins away from lifting 11th state championship

Madi Liimatainen and the second-seeded Turners Falls softball team will meet No. 3 Hopedale in the MIAA Division 5 semifinals on Wednesday night at Worcester State University.

Madi Liimatainen and the second-seeded Turners Falls softball team will meet No. 3 Hopedale in the MIAA Division 5 semifinals on Wednesday night at Worcester State University. STAFF PHOTO/JEFF LAJOIE

By THOMAS JOHNSTON

Staff Writer

Published: 06-11-2024 2:13 PM

It almost feels like a given that Turners Falls will be one of the last four softball teams standing in its division at the end of the season. 

After winning the 2021 MIAA Division 3 state championship — the last iteration of the old state tournament format — the Thunder have shown remarkable consistency the last two years. They reached the MIAA Final Four in 2022 before making it to the finals last year, where they fell to Greenfield. 

After rolling through the Div. 5 field this spring, Turners finds itself in a familiar position as it is two wins away from taking home the 11th state championship in program history. To get back to the title game, the second-seeded Thunder will first need to get past No. 3 Hopedale, with the two teams set to meet in the semifinals on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at Worcester State University’s Rockwood Field. 

“There are a lot more chances to lose in this format,” Turners Falls junior Madi Liimatainen said. “The old way you only had two games and had to win one to get to the finals. Now you need four wins to get to the finals. It’s a different setup but I’m ready to go. We know what we want to get to. We just have to take it one game at a time.” 

Liimatainen and senior Holly Myers are the lone members remaining from that 2021 state title team. 

Having the thrill of taking home a state championship has only fueled their desire to recapture that moment. The Thunder are the top seed remaining in the field after top-seeded Greenfield — the back-to-back defending state champions — fell to Tahanto in the quarterfinals. 

“We’ve seen what it’s like to win one and we’ve seen what it’s like to lose one,” Liimatainen said. “We’re able to channel the energy from when we won one to the girls on the team who were too young and not on that team. Experiencing that is a story you’ll tell forever. That win in 2021 is a story that should be in a movie. I want everyone to be able to experience that feeling.”

The losses late in the season — to West Boylston in the semifinals in 2022 and to Greenfield in the state title game in 2023 — are also motivating factors for this Thunder group to lift title No. 11. 

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“Two years now, we’ve come so close and lost,” Myers said. “A lot of us are looking for that feeling of winning it. We’ve had a lot of disappointment and we’ve just missed it. Last year and the year before we came pretty close. It’s been a long time coming.”

Turners (19-5) opened its season with nine straight wins, but hit a lull after and lost three in a row, two coming against the Green Wave. The Thunder turned it around, winning four of their final six games, the lone two losses coming to Hampshire — which reached the Div. 4 quarterfinals — and Wachusett, the top seed in Div. 1 which is also playing in the semis this week. 

The Turners bats cooled off a bit in the Western Mass. Class D tournament, beating Mount Everett (1-0) and Hopkins (5-0), and closed things out with a 3-0 victory over Lee to capture the Class D title. 

Those bats have come back to life in the state tournament. Turners rolled past No. 31 Academy of Notre Dame (11-0), No. 18 Norfolk Aggie (21-14) and on Saturday in the quarterfinals, the Thunder pulled away with an 11-4 victory over No. 7 Narragansett to reach the semis. 

With a pitcher like Liimatainen — who has eclipsed the 900 strikeout mark before her senior season — Turners knows it doesn’t typically need to do much at the plate to earn victories. The junior didn’t allow a run during the sectional tournament.

“Hitting is so crucial,” Myers said. “I know for me as a catcher, it makes me feel more confident and I know it makes Madi more confident out there. We feel that comfort knowing we can score runs. The last two games we started losing when we first got to bat but we came back.”

Liimatainen, Myers, Mia Marigliano, Janelle Massey and Madisyn Dietz lead the charge at the top of the Thunder lineup. Seniors Anne Kolodziej and Ella Koloziej have provided a spark in their first year back playing softball, Marilyn Abarua is a veteran player while freshman Addison Talbot and seventh grader Autumn Thornton have caught fire down the stretch. 

On the season, Turners has outscored its opponents 187-81 thanks to a lot of hard work at practice. 

“It’s the right time for us to be hitting,” Liimatainen said. “We practice a lot of hitting. We did different drills, we did different things like starting our bats in a different position. The coaches worked very hard to get us hitting the ball again. It shows that with repetition, you find success.”

Hopedale also enters with plenty of confidence. The Blue Raiders went 17-3 in the regular season and have knocked off No. 30 Pathfinder (12-0), No. 14 Millis (5-1) and No. 6 West Boylston (2-0) to reach the semifinals. 

Hopedale, which has outscored its opponents 227-77, has the ability to put runs on the board in a hurry. 

“We’ve heard they have a pretty decent pitcher,” Liimatainen said. “I think as long as we keep playing the way we’ve been playing, we should play a good game and we should win. Right now, everyone has their eye on the prize. We’re one step closer and now we only have to win one more game to get to the finals. Last week, we needed three more. It’s the keep going mindset. Our season is still alive.” 

Playing their game and not focusing on the opponent will be a key for Turners. 

“I’m excited,” Myers said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. No matter what happens, it’s been a great season. We’re going to have a great time competing for it. That’s the fun part.

“We just need to play how we know to play,” Myers added. “If we play like our team, we’ll win the game. If not, we won’t.”

After a great season, Turners is looking forward to its quest for another state title – while enjoying the ride along the way. 

“I think we’re ready,” Liimatainen said. “Everyone is ready to play. We’re eager to go.”