STRATFORD - Of course it had to be heart-stopping and dramatic. Thatâs how the Southington softball team rolls in state championship games.
When the Blue Knights won three straight titles from 2013-15, and when they were runners-up in 2017, each came down to the final pitch in one-run all-timers. So when they headed to the seventh inning of Saturdayâs Class LL banner game against Norwich Free Academy leading by five runs, fans at DeLuca Field may have felt a little jaded.
NFA ensured those fans got their moneyâs worth, adding some late chaos by scoring four in the final inning. But Southington freshman pitcher Samantha Sullivan entered the game with no outs and shut the door on NFA with a strikeout and a pop-fly foul out.
When the final out landed in the glove of first baseman Katherine Gundersen, it set off a celebration filled with tears of joy and some deep sighs of relief as the program won its 18th state championship with a 7-6 victory.
âItâs always dramatic, right?â Southington head coach Davina Hernandez said with a laugh. âWe obviously wanted to seal the deal a little quicker than that, but that just speaks on NFA. Theyâre a team that if youâre not hitting your spots and youâre not making the plays, theyâre gonna capitalize, and they did.
âAll that matters is at the end of the game, [our girls] did it. They came out on top. Iâm just really, really proud of them.â
You can forgive any Southington backers if, in the seventh, they began to have flashbacks to 2017âs title-game loss to Trumbull. Five errors, communication breakdowns and a handful of other mistakes were the culprit in that 4-3 heartbreaker.
So when Southington starter Julia Paranella, who had allowed two runs on four hits with four strikeouts in six innings, was pulled in the seventh for Julia Theriault and things began to break down, it looked like another unraveling in the championship game might happen.
In the two clubsâ first matchups of the season, Paranella pitched a complete game in a 5-3 win April 25, but Hernandez said the Wildcats began to hit the sophomore much harder the third time through the order. Thatâs why she made the move this time to her senior Theriault, who made some key pitches but didnât get help from a defense that committed two errors and allowed NFA to score two runs and put runners on second and third with no outs.
Sullivan then came on in relief and gave up an RBI groundout and an RBI single to shallow right. She then calmed herself and struck out Sara Cote and induced the foul out to Bailey Comeau.
âWe had some nerves there in the last inning,â Hernandez said. âWhat I love is I saw my girls out there rallying each other up, patting each other on the back and telling each other, âIâve got you.ââ
Until the seventh, it had been the sixth-seeded Blue Knights (22-3) who had taken advantage of poor defense on four errors by eighth-seeded NFA (19-5). After Southington scratched across two runs in the first for a 2-1 lead and NFAâs Alexandria Burdick tied it with a solo home run in the third, the Blue Knights took the lead for good on a gamble from Hernandez in the bottom half of the inning.
After Abby Lamson led off by pounding a triple on a one-hopper to the right-field fence, Hernandez called for a suicide squeeze for Alex Rodgers. The junior laid down the bunt perfectly and sprinted to first as her teammate rushed home and slid under a tag from NFA catcher Brenna Comeau.
Rodgers, in a sly move of heads-up baserunning, turned the corner at the bag and headed for second, where she ducked under a throw from Comeau that sailed into center field. Rodgers hopped up, took third and didnât hesitate in sprinting home for another run and a 4-2 lead.
The play gave the Blue Knights a huge momentum boost, and they added to it with two runs in the fourth and another in the sixth on Lamsonâs RBI groundout that wound up being a key insurance run before the hectic final frame.
âWe wanted the bats to come out hot right away,â Lamson said. âEspecially when they scored first, that was our goal to come right back into it and get the runs back. We wanted to control the atmosphere of the game.â
Lamson was a starter on the 2017 squad that came up just short, and she said the loss fueled she and her teammates over the past two seasons. And not being a dominant team like some past Southington groups also provided some motivation.
âIt was a completely different year and team, but I think we found strength in that,â Lamson said. âWe really wanted it. It was just a feeling. Starting the tournament, we had a whole different feeling than last year, and we were just ready. We wanted to get it done.â
With the victory, Lamson and her fellow seniors (Marotto, Theriault, Diane Williams, Gabby Verderame-Malachowski) also avoided becoming the first class since Hernandez took over the program in 2014 to not win a state title.
âTheyâve been a really great group, and thatâs why I got so emotional, just because this group means so much to me,â Hernandez said. âMany of these senior girls I started with in sixth and seventh grade, working with them in the youth programs. Itâs just been amazing to watch them grow from 11, 12, 13 to 18 years old and to just see them progress into such fine young women and ball players. Thatâs really rewarding.â
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or email@example.com