Jeff Brewer

You might look at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s softball roster and think this tournament run is a year ahead of schedule.

But for St. V-M first baseman Nicole Paolucci, the team’s one senior, the timing is perfect.

Paolucci delivered the key hit Thursday and sophomore pitcher Lexie Handley was dominant as the Irish defeated Jefferson Area 3-1 in a Division II regional semifinal at Firestone Stadium in Akron.

The Irish (18-5-1) and Tallmadge (23-3) meet at noon Saturday at Firestone Stadium for the region championship and a berth in the state semifinals.

“We get Shillelagh Awards at St. V when we go to state,” said Paolucci, who delivered a two-run double. “And that’s all I’ve wanted, ever since I was a freshman, and going to state would mean the world.”

St. V-M players had (Philippians) 4:13 inscribed in ink on the inside of their forearms.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” Paolucci said. “We’re a very spiritual team and 4:13 is significant when we play.”

To advance, St. V-M had to get past a team that was a mirror image of itself. Jefferson Area (18-7), led by sophomore pitcher Alyssa Irons (15-6), had one senior on its roster.

“Very similar teams, hard-nosed, tough, classy,” Jefferson coach Don McCormack said. “One inning beat us and to their credit they took advantage of it. Credit to St. Vincent-St. Mary. Today they outplayed us and they deserved to win.”

Handley (14-2) struck out 12 and yielded three hits. Irons struck out 12 and gave up four hits. All scoring came in the third inning.

Defense was the difference. The Irish had a clean sheet, while the Falcons made both of their miscues in the decisive third inning.

“Until you know you can win when you go out on the field, that’s a huge difference,” St. V-M coach Tony Ninni said. “Ever since our sectional started, it just clicked in. I don’t think we’ve had any errors in the last three games.”

Freshman designated player Alexa DiFeo reached second base on an error to start the top of the third. Pinch runner Brooke Scherer advanced to third on a wild pitch and sophomore catcher Bekka Mayle coaxed a walk. Mayle took second base without a throw.

A sacrifice bunt attempt resulted in a pop out, keeping runners at second and third. Paolucci then fell behind two strikes. Battling to a 3-2 count, Paolucci’s line shot glanced off the first baseman’s glove over the base and skipped into foul territory beyond the right-field line.

“As soon as [Irons] released it, I saw it on the outside corner and I just took it to right,” she said.

The clutch double gave St. V-M a 2-0 lead. Handley followed with a two-out, RBI single. From that point on, Irons retired 13 in a row to end the game.

In the bottom of the third, Deanna Camp’s RBI single got the Falcons on the board, but Handley retired the next nine hitters she faced.

With one out in the bottom of the seventh, Jefferson catcher Sam Hamski tripled to the right-field corner. The next hitter fanned. Truckey then hit a dribbler to Handley who threw to Paolucci for the final out, touching off an Irish celebration.

Wait ... foul ball. But Handley grooved a called third strike to win it again.

“A month and a half ago, no one would have thought we’d be here today,” Handley said. “I’m so proud of these girls and what we did today. I’m excited for Saturday.”

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