By John Goralski
It’s hard to believe that Davina Hernandez is just the third person to grab the reigns of Southington’s softball program, but the first-year coach has already settled nicely into her new position. At a preseason practice, she drives a ball deep into right field and stops the drill to give some tips for a stronger throw. Then, with the precision of a surgeon, she drives another ball to the same spot of earth.
Hernandez smiles as the throw skips perfectly into the catcher’s glove.
“That’s the way to do it,” she yells to her right fielder. “I used to feel like I was almost falling over when I made that throw. One more…”
The former Bristol Central standout is the youngest coach to take on the Lady Knights. She’s the first woman, but she’s also one of the most decorated. She was a four-year player at Bristol Central and UMass. She went on to anchor the Puerto Rican team in their quest for the Beijing Olympics, and she returned home to serve as the assistant coach during last year’s championship surge.
Now, Hernandez looks to put her own stamp on Southington’s storied franchise, but one thing will never change.
“I have only known Southington as a winning program, and I’m excited [to keep that going],” she said. “I feel like there’s always that pressure and that target on our backs. There’s just an expectations in Southington to do well.”
The Lady Knights returned to prominence last spring with as they surged past five teams to snap a nine-year title drought. The girls came one victory short of a perfect season. They out-scored teams 34-5 during their postseason run. Twelve players finished with batting averages over .300. Eight finished above .400 with four of them over the .500 mark, and two pitchers combined for 24 wins and a 0.46 ERA.
Southington returns all but four players from that championship team, and that’s one reason why Hernandez has set such high expectations this spring. Still, Southington can’t afford to rest on their laurels.
“It’s hard to say if we can think of this as a continuation or a new season,” said the coach. “We just have to remind ourselves of what these girls are capable of, but at the same time we can’t dwell in the past. We have to move on and try to get better every day.”
It helps that the Knights return every single player from their star-studded infield last spring. Senior co-captain Sydney Ferrante returns for her fourth season at shortstop. Kaitlin Paterson returns for her third season at second base. Senior third baseman Lauren Zazzaro and sophomore first baseman Natalie Wadolowski return to protect the corners.
Last year, the fearsome foursome combined for just 12 errors. At the plate, they hit .442 with 121 runs, 118 RBI, and 46 extra base hits. Together, they’ll spearhead the Southington attack.
“Right now, they’re that rock in the middle of the field that I’m going to be counting on,” Hernandez said. “In my opinion, they are one of the best high school infields that I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. I’m not sure if they even realize that. This is now their second or third year playing in the infield, and you can see their chemistry when we’re taking infield practice. You can see it when they’re turning a double play. It’s the little things that you might not even realize that just comes from playing together for so long.”
Defense will be important as Southington shifts junior hurler Kendra Friedt into the center of a new battery. For the past two seasons, Friedt has been a strong throwing reliever for the Knights and even has postseason experience in a championship game. Senior catcher Rachel Dube will anchor the Knights behind the plate with sophomore pitcher Brenna Sarantides and junior catcher Nicole White giving Southington depth in the bullpen.
“This is definitely a hard working bunch. I like the attitudes of all four of them, and they’ve done a lot on their own before the start of the season,” Hernandez said. “It’s good to have a pitcher and catcher stepping in that probably would have, at any other school, been playing already as sophomores and juniors. Both Kendra and Rachel have challenged themselves in the summer to step in and be ready to play.”
If a batter somehow pierces the front row of defense, Hernandez is confident about Southington’s outfield. Haley Arduini is the lone returner, but she’ll be joined by a strong group of up-and-coming players. Emily Lippincott and Caroline Burke should figure prominently in the field, but Hernandez expects Danielle Ahern and Haley Messenger to contribute to Southington’s depth along with utility specialist Isabella Russo.
Hernandez expects to open the season with Arduini in right field to take advantage of her experience and versatility.
“I don’t know what she did in the off-season, but there’s a confidence about her, and I just hope that continues,” said the coach. “She’s been a big presence at the plate during our scrimmages, making diving catches in the outfield, and throwing people out. Some people might ask why I would have her standing out there in right field, but Kendra throws really hard. A lot of the balls in our scrimmages that have gone out to the outfield have gone to her.”
Hernandez said that she worked with former coach John Bores during the off-season to structure a tougher schedule for the Lady Knights so that they will be ready for another postseason run. Bores added Wethersfield, Rockville, and Maloney as competitive non-conference opponents, and Hernandez secured a home-away rivalry against Bristol Eastern to compliment the annual series with Bristol Central. In addition, Hernandez expects the conference schedule to pose some challenges.
“In my opinion, there’s really no game that we should look past,” she said. “I really think we should attack every opponent with that same mentality. We want to get into the tournament and secure one of the top positions going in. The next step is to secure the conference, and we can’t really look past that.”
As for her style, Hernandez promises to be even more aggressive on the base paths, and that will be the biggest change. The coach expects to force defenses to make plays. She expects to steal. She expects to stretch singles into extra base hits and take advantage of any openings that an opponent might give them.
“Coaches that know me know that I’m the type of coach that likes to run and try things to get things going on the base paths,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a little bit of a process to get the girls to be comfortable running the bases and reading the ball, but I think that these kids have the potential to really, really turn some heads this year. Just like last year, it won’t be that one superstar on the team. We’ll have a lot of girls that work hard and come together to have that common goal. If they play to their potential, they can do some really good things.”
In other words, it’s business as usual.
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