By John Goralski
Nobody knows what the Danbury girls where thinking when they stepped onto Falcon Field for the 1987 girls softball championship, but they couldn’t have been happy. Just a few months earlier Kris Mach had dashed the Hatters’ hopes for a girls basketball title with a last second basket, and there she was swinging her bat. Tracy Ciosek was on that hoops team, too, and there she was warming up as Southington’s ace.
Sports fans love stories about redemption. Movies have been made about comebacks and retribution. This story is not one of them.
Dwight Moore, a sports reporter for the Southington Observer in 1987, remarked, “The results turned out the same, with but one difference. There’d be no close game…no last second heroics…and things would be decided quickly, early, and decisively.”
This is a story about dominance, winning streaks, and state titles. This is a story about Southington softball in the middle of its 1980s heyday.
“We had a small group of kids on this team that played softball and basketball,” said former Lady Knight softball coach and an assistant coach Ron Piazza. “They were a part of five state championships in their six possible seasons. It was amazing.”
In retrospect, nobody should have been surprised. After all, the 1987 title was Southington’s third state championship in as many years and their eighth title in 11 seasons, but it wasn’t a sure thing when practice began in mid-March.
“We lost four seniors off the 1986 team, and all four of them were all-staters,” said Piazza. “Those four accounted for 140 runs, 129 hits, 120 RBI. They had nine of our 12 homeruns and 65 of our 71 stolen bases. We lost a lot…We knew that we were going to have to switch some people around, and we were lucky that we got some young kids that stepped up.”
Of course it helped to have one of the most successful pitchers in Southington history on the mound. Senior co-captain Tracy Ciosek was a shortstop-turned-pitching ace that was just as deadly with her glove as she was with a pitch. Behind her was an all-star lineup, including seasoned seniors like Melodie Johnson, Cheryl Danko, Cheryl Bradley, Chris Zimmer, and the one that really upset Danbury—Mach.
Still, Piazza had a lot of questions at the start. Those would be answered early. Right out of the gates, Southington batters took charge. Southington outscored 80-3 to race out to a quick 6-0 start. During that stretch, Ciosek bookended a perfect game with a pair of no-hitters. The Knight knocked off a Norwalk powerhouse to start the streak and dropped the No. 2 team in the state with an 11-1 victory over Bristol Central.
“There were an awful lot of questions going into that 87 season, but they all got answered,” said Piazza. “When we beat Norwalk, 9-0, in that first game, I knew we were okay. Norwalk was always a really good team back then. We were scoring runs. We had a good group. Sure, there were teams that gave us trouble along the way, and it was those teams that had pitchers that weren’t throwing hard.”
Southington never slowed and they picked off opponents like a marksman at the range. The team rallied for 12 shutouts. They outscored opponents, 220-15, and finished the regular season with a perfect 20-0 record.
The Knights had strong hitting throughout the lineup. Johnson led the attack with a .456 batting average, but Kristin Wilcox (.444), Zimmer (.430), Bradley (.405), and Dawn Lantiere (.410) each broke the .400 barrier. As a team, Southington batted .340 with a slugging percentage approaching .500. The girls combined for 191 hits and 60 were extra base hits.
“That 87 team stands out for me because of the way that they were able to regroup in the beginning of the year,” Piazza said. “Kids were called upon to step up. The kid that was the second base on the 86 team was moved to first base. Our shortstop shifted to second base and we brought in a sophomore, Dawn Lantiere, to play shortstop. We brought in a sophomore third baseman. They just gelled together and ran the table. They made a consistent run and never let down. They were a proud group of kids.”
As it turns out the regular season was just a warmup for the tournament because this may be one of the most dominant postseason teams in Southington history. They beat Cheshire, 8-0, in the second round. They surged past Holy Cross, 6-3, in the quarterfinals, and advanced to the championship game with a 24-1 rout over Windham that quieted even the staunchest of critics.
Colleen Steinnagel went 4-for-5 with a homerun and five RBI to pace Southington’s 16-hit attack, and Windham never knew what hit them.
“Windham expected to win. A lot of people gave them a good chance to beat us, and I did too,” Piazza said, “But after the second inning you could see that Windham was totally deflated. They were just going through the motion. Balls were dropping in that they probably should have caught because they had just lost their drive. I almost felt bad for them because we never tried to run the score up. When you look at our scores that year and you see a 29, it could have probably been 40.”
That set up the rematch with Danbury in the finals. Once again, Southington hit the ground running. Ciosek held the Hatters to five hits with one walk and nine strikeouts, including five strikeouts in the last two innings. Seven of Southington’s starting nine contributed to the lopsided win with Zimmer leading the way at 3-for-4. Mach, Lantiere, Ciosek, and Bradley had two hits apiece. Johnson had four RBI with two sacrifice flies and a double. The Knights finished with 14 hits in the game.
When the dust had settled, Southington had earned another state title. More impressive was a 52-game winning streak that stretched back to the 1985 state tournament. It was a state record at the time, and one that would take 20 years to break.
“It was amazing,” Piaza said. “It only takes a ball hitting a pebble. It takes a walk or an error to break a streak like that. To have one go that long was great for our program. Every time we won, it was a headline. We got national attention. They started a national women’s fastpitch magazine at the time. It’s no longer in use, but they featured us on the cover. “
Once again, the Lady Knights had raised the bar for future Southington teams, but Piazza said that their legacy was their resilience. This wasn’t a team that was expected to race through the schedule so easily. This wasn’t a team that was expected to win, but they did it with ease.
On Thursday, Nov. 8, the team will finally be honored in an induction ceremony at the Aqua Turf Club in Plantsville. For tickets, contact Jim Verderame, (860) 628-7335.
“The legacy of that team was their resilience. They put themselves together at the beginning of the year, not knowing what they were going to do, and they got better as the year went on,” said Piazza. “We caught breaks. We made breaks for ourselves. The pitching was good, but the defense was just as good. The hitting—what can you say? They came through when we needed them to come through.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@southington observer.com.