STRATFORD - In the days leading up to the Southington softball team‚Äôs state semifinals matchup with No. 2 Trumbull, head coach Davina Hernandez motivated her Blue Knights with a story from two seasons prior.
In the 2017 Class LL state tournament semifinals against Cheshire, a then unpolished sophomore in Gabby Verderame-Malachowski stepped in as a pinch hitter and laced a go-ahead double to the fence in left field to score two runs, one for each at-bat the underclassman entered the game with during the regular season. The morale of the story: be ready for your moment, because it‚Äôs coming.
‚ÄúI‚Äôve been using that example all postseason with the girls, to take advantage of your opportunities,‚ÄĚ Hernandez said. ‚ÄúI brought that story up two days ago to our bench people.‚ÄĚ
Malachowski, now a staple in Hernandez‚Äôs lineup as a senior, blasted a three-run homer on Monday to propel the Blue Knights to their sixth state title appearance in eight seasons, but back when Hernandez called her number as an inexperienced sophomore, Hernandez never looked at the overall varsity resume, or lack thereof. The question when scanning the bench for a pinch hitter against the Rams at DeLuca Field two years ago was simple: ‚Äėwhat have you done for me lately?‚Äô
‚ÄúShe was just peaking at the right time,‚ÄĚ Hernandez said. ‚ÄúShe didn‚Äôt have a lot of at-bats during the season, but she was hot. I am making changes based off who is hot. We are pushing each other to get better every game.‚ÄĚ
Not much has changed in the present day. Southington‚Äôs ever-shuffling lineup to maximize the hottest bats is still winning ballgames, and still receiving contributions from throughout the roster, regardless of their total number of plate appearances during the regular season. So far, Hernandez has been putting her team on the cusp of their first state championship since 2015.
Hernandez‚Äôs strategy took center stage on Monday, when role players like catcher Kayla Pelletier saw their name in the starting lineup and promptly scorched a single in her first at-bat, sparking a four-run third inning capped off by Malachowski‚Äôs titanic home run. Pelletier made solid contact in both of her other at-bats for loud outs, but once again, her coach‚Äôs faith was rewarded.
‚ÄúShe got a hit and drove a couple pitches,‚ÄĚ Hernandez said. ‚ÄúShe hasn‚Äôt had that many at-bats this year. She‚Äôs young, but she‚Äôs been working in and out of the lineup.‚ÄĚ
In the seventh inning, Hernandez plugged in junior Kasey Mason as a pinch hitter, who immediately smacked a single to advance the lead runner into scoring position, which later scored to give the Blue Knights an insurance run and offered another glimpse at the depth of Southington‚Äôs roster, and their leader‚Äôs ability to gauge the temperature of each bat waiting in the dugout.
Of course, the arm in the circle during Monday‚Äôs win also represented the Blue Knights‚Äô commitment to sticking with the hot bat, or in this case, the hot arm.
Sophomore hurler Julia Panarella was dealing on Monday, finishing with just three hits allowed while striking out nine, causing Hernandez to rethink her original strategy of putting in senior Julia Theriault in relief. The sophomore responded by not allowing a hit through the final three innings to further solidify the Blue Knights‚Äô current game plan, which has been embraced as much by the players as the coach who orchestrates it.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs insane,‚ÄĚ Panarella said of the group effort. ‚ÄúThey make me feel so comfortable on the mound. Having a team like them behind me, and knowing that we‚Äôre going to come up and hit is amazing.‚ÄĚ
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org