By BRIAN JENNINGS
Lady Knight softball coach Davina Hernandez yells across the high school gym during a pre-season practice. “Those aren’t short hops,” she yells between drills. “Those are high hops. You have to throw it underhand and skip it right before her glove. You don’t want that high hop at all. Don’t pull it up and in, push through it.”
If you think there is a secret to the Lady Knights’ success, keep thinking. Davina Hernandez is in her second year at Southington coaching the softball team, and she said she believes in teaching her girls to practice basic, everyday fundamentals, from hitting off of a tee instead of a pitching machine to using partners for groundball drills.
It’s an approach that has paid off well. Coming into the last spring, the Knights had lost half of their starting lineup to graduation. There were a lot of questions surrounding the then first-year coach as to what they were going to do, but Hernandez quieted any critics. The Knights proved all doubters wrong, finishing the 2014 regular season perfect with a 20-0 record (14-0).
“They wanted to prove to everyone that this is a program where we focus a ton on program development, so that we can hopefully continue to have players that can step in and be game ready,” said Hernandez. “That’s why we keep such a small roster on varsity.
The Knights ran through the tournament to win their second straight Class LL state title. The last time Southington won back-to-back championships was in 1987-88, when they capped a run of four consecutive state titles from 1985 to 1988.
“In those close games when you do play great teams, a lot of times last year it came down to who was more disciplined at the plate or who made good decisions on the bases,” the coach said.
The Knights have only lost one game in two years and outscored their opponents 300-15 last season. Now, they will try to continue that trend. Unlike last season, the Knights only lost three players from last year’s lineup. Although it’s only three, they were three key players.
Sydney Ferrante was a four-year starting shortstop and the only captain of the team. Ferrante led the Knights with 53 hits, 54 RBI’s, seven home runs, and a batting average of .570. Rachel Dube was the starting catcher for the Knights and hit a walk-off home run in the 15th inning of the championship game to clinch the program’s 16th state title. Caroline Burke was an all-state contender for the Knights as one of the best outfielders in the state.
Still, the thought of climbing back to the top of the mountain doesn’t seem so far for the Knights. To the second-year head coach, three is not the mindset of her girls at this point.
“If we start talking about state championships and reaching for that right now, that’s probably the worst thing we can do,” Hernandez said. “We have to take it one game at a time, stay composed, and try not to get caught with the articles and what people are saying. They’re really good at staying focused once they get in between those lines and get the job done. We have a lot of fun and it’s important for them to have fun while they’re learning and getting better.”
The Knights will be bringing back 10 seniors, four juniors, and three sophomores. The Knights will also be welcoming back some experience at the plate with more than 10 players in double-digit numbers at bat and four players who bat an average of .500 or better.
Seniors Kendra Friedt, Lauren Zazzaro, and Kaitlin Paterson were named as captains of the team. Friedt will serve as a huge presence on the mound after leading the Knights with 23 wins out of 24 starts, 247 strikeouts, 16 shut outs, one complete game, and an ERA of 0.36.
Zazzaro and Paterson will anchor the infield. Zazzaro could be returning to third base where she had played last season for the Knights and led the team with 33 stolen bases out of 34 attempts. She batted in 28 runs out of 43 hits with a batting average of .500.
Paterson will be stepping in at second base again, where she has been playing since her freshman year or she may shift to shortstop to fill the vacancy led by the graduation of four-year veteran Sydney Ferrante. At the plate, Paterson hopes to build on last season where she led the team with 14 walks and the second highest on-base percentage (.567). She also can swing the bat, leading the team with 45 runs off of 45 hits, batting in 30 runs and four home runs.
Junior Brenna Sarantides will also be seeing the mound, backing up Friedt as a relief pitcher. Coming back with a stronger arm and quicker hands, Sarantides will be vying for a spot in left field as well.
Senior Nicole White returns in her third year to the varsity team. Sophomore Maighread “Ellen” Scafariello comes to the Knights in her first year as a transfer from Sacred Heart Academy, who helped them get to the Class L championship game last season. White and Scafariello will be competing for the starting catcher position.
Junior Natalie Wadolowski has been at first base for the two years that she has been on the team, but could be moving to the other corner of the diamond at third base. She led the team with 11 total chances and 11 put outs in the field. As a freshman, Wadolowski was co-MVP of the state championship game when the Knights won the state title in 2013.
There will be no shortage of depth. Senior Isabella Russo led the team with and on-base percentage of .600 and will be fighting for one of the starting infield positions. Senior Haley Messenger will be contending for third base or a starting outfield position.
Senior Hayley Arduini returns to right field next to senior Emily Lippincott, who will be the anchor in center field where she flies to get a jump on any ball that comes her way. Look out for senior Danielle Ahern to battle for a spot in left field.
Depth will be one the strengths for the Knights this season and Hernandez said she hopes to keep that mentality going in the program.
“All of my girls play a lot and there really isn’t a bench because almost everyone plays every game,” the Knights coach said.
Hernandez said she will be looking to utilize a designated player and might be moving players that have multiple years of experience at one position to a new position.
Even though some teams in the CCC West are experiencing rebuilding years, Hernandez said that they have to go into every game with the thought of playing their best game. Staying focused and being consistent is what Hernandez expects out of her girls. They might have a big target on their back, but taking it one game at a time is what the Knights plan to do.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at BJennings@SouthingtonObserver.com.