Maurice Tawil’s three years as head coach of the McLean High girls’ softball team would make for a successful manual on how to get progressively better with each season.
The Highlanders, who have shown steady improvement since Tawil took over the program in 2007, won their biggest game during his time at the helm of the program when they defeated a tough, scrappy West Potomac squad, 7-2, in a Northern Region quarterfinals round playoff game over the Memorial Day weekend. The postseason contest, played under the threat of showers on Monday evening, took place at Falls Church High School.
McLean (20-4), the Liberty District regular season champion, will next move on to Wednesday’s semifinals meeting against South County. Game time for the May 27, round of four meeting will be 7 p.m. at Robinson Secondary School.
West Potomac (10-9) saw a fairly successful season end under first-year head coach Rich Anderson. The Wolverines, the fourth place team from the Patriot District, won a first round region playoff game over Yorktown before the season-ending setback to the Highlanders.
"It was a great year," said Anderson. "We had lots of fun and the girls played really hard. The seniors adapted well [to the new coaching staff], drove the team well and were enthusiastic. We have a lot to build on."
McLean, meanwhile, is experiencing a breakthrough season. The Highlanders have never before captured a region crown, but are now two wins from accomplishing just that. Should McLean get past South County, it would advance to Friday night’s finals at Madison High School against the Robinson-Centreville semifinals winner. Also, a win over South County would automatically place the Highlanders into next week’s state AAA tournament.
In Tawil’s first season at McLean in 2007, the Highlanders made it to regionals before losing in the first round. Last year, they made it to the second round before losing to Westfield, 3-1. This spring, McLean has taken the next step forward.
"Our goal was to get past this game and [hopefully] get to states," said Tawil, moments after his team’s win over the Wolverines. "This team has gotten better and better over the course of three years."
MONDAY’S HOLIDAY evening game, played under overcast conditions and some light rain, saved its dramatics for the later innings. McLean looked well in control of things through five innings. Sophomore pitcher Jamie Bell had limited West Potomac to just three hits in five shutout innings of work. The McLean offense, meanwhile, had scored a second-inning run, thanks to an RBI double by Allison Wilhelm, and tallied two more in the third inning on an RBI single off the bat of Megan Sullivan. On the Sullivan groundball base hit into right field, a second run ultimately crossed the plate as a result of a West Potomac defensive error.
But West Potomac, which had not scored after loading the bases on three walks in the fifth, finally got onto the scoreboard in the top half of the sixth inning. Jess Harrington started the inning with a walk. Bell, however, retired the next two hitters and was one out away from keeping the shutout intact. But Wolverine hitter Maggie Berrigan reached on an infield single to set up runners on first and third.
That set up the strangest play of the game. Kelly Wood, the Wolverines’ No. 9 hitter, grounded a single into right field. One run scored on the hit. Wood, however, was caught in a rundown between first and second and appeared to be tagged out at first before a second run had crossed the plate.
But following a lengthy umpires’ meeting, Wood was ruled safe at first as a result of a McLean infielder dropping the ball on the tag. Thus, the second run was allowed and the Wolverines drew within 3-2. Bell escaped the inning by retiring the next batter and the game moved into McLean’s bottom half of the sixth.
There, any hopes of a West Potomac comeback pretty much ended as the Highlanders busted things open with four runs. The big blow was a two-out, three-run home run off the bat of No. 3 hitter Lauren Sutherland that made the score 7-2.
West Potomac went down in order in the seventh and McLean won.
"She’s a big, strong girl and possibly our best athlete on the team," said Tawil, of centerfielder and offensive game hero Sutherland. "She’s a girl we want in that No. 3 [batting] position."
McLean’s mound hero was Bell. When the rain picked up in the later innings, she struggled with her command, walking four batters over the fifth and sixth innings combined. But she worked through the control issues.
"It was almost impossible to keep the ball dry," said Bell.
The game’s best and most important defensive play came in the fifth inning. West Potomac, down 3-0, had the bases loaded and two outs when Jasmine Picini roped a line drive down the left field line. The ball hung a bit and McLean leftfielder Wilhelm, racing toward her right in the slick, wet grass, reached out and snatched the ball. The brilliant catch saved two runs and ended the inning.
West Potomac, in the loss, received a fine pitching effort from freshmen Morgan Maniglia, who held the Highlanders at bay most of the game.
"She pitched a beautiful game," said Anderson, who said Maniglia was his team’s choice for the All-Tournament team. "It was a good game and we hung in there."
For McLean, it’s on to new territory in reaching the region semis.
"It’s something none of the girls on this team have ever done before," said Bell, of getting this far in the postseason. "It’s thrilling."