By JOHN GORALSKI
The Lady Knights were defending a state title at the start of the 1986 spring season, but it seemed there were more questions than answers when tryouts began. Gone was the championship pitcher and a couple of key players, but even the returning players were out of the lineup in the days leading up to the season.
“There were so many questions coming in as to who would actually be available to play,” said former Lady Knight softball coach Joe Piazza, shaking his head after three decades while he scanned a team photo. “It was two days before our opening game, and we still didn’t have our pitcher. Tracy (Ciosek) chipped her coccyx bone in the basketball quarterfinals. She played the rest of the tournament, but we didn’t know how bad her back would be.”
That wasn’t all. The team’s catcher (Melinda Silva) was nursing an elbow injury sustained during the winter hoops run. The left fielder (Jill Pelrin) had football-sized welts running up and down her legs from diving for loose balls.
When Ciosek promised she’d be ready for the first varsity game, a skeptical Piazza sent her down the hill to throw against a wall. He turned back to the field when a series of explosions caught his attention.
He can still remember the smile as his player gave him the news. “That’s Tracy,” she said.
“I turned around and looked, and I immediately felt bad for the sophomore that we were trying to bring up,” he said. “We thought she’d get a chance to start the first two or three games. As it turned out, she might have gotten two or three innings all year.”
When Norwalk arrived for opening day, Ciosek met them with a one-hitter. Two games later, she pitched her first of five no-hitters and first of two perfect games. Silva’s elbow wasn’t a problem when the first unlucky runner tried to steal second base, and Pelrin never missed a step in the outfield despite the bruises and fatigue.
But the pitching and the defense weren’t the biggest surprise that spring. After just one week of play, Southington had outscored four opponents, 46-1. They were just getting started.
“I kind of expected that we would have a good offensive team, but you never really know,” said Piazza. “We had the ability to drop bunts, steal bases, and move runners around. We hit sacrifice flies when we needed them, and a lot of different ways to score runs and do stuff. But you can hit line drives right at people.”
Southington hitters didn’t. The offense seemed to grow in intensity with every inning like a wildfire unleashed by the wind. Chris Zimmer sparked the everyday players with a .500 average, followed closely by Pelrin (.472), Coleen Steinnagel (.429), and Ciosek (.408).
Doreen Lumbra (.368), Melinda Silva (.380), Debbie Dunbar (.390), Melinda Johnson (.324), and Kris Mach (.356) were each over .300. Of the starters, only Cheryl Bradley (.288) fell beneath that mark, but she more than made up for it with her 11 steals and five extra base hits.
“A lot of these kids, although they had great stats, would have had even better stats,” said the coach. “I used to pull kids out. I wasn’t a believer of letting kids pad stats because they weren’t that important back then. It wasn’t about the school record for most hits, at bats, or batting average. If it was, I might have let some of them bat more times.”
The bench was just as good. As a team, the Knights scored 47 extra base hits and 260 RBI. Three times, Southington scored more than 30 runs in a game. Seven times, they scored more than 20 as the Knights rolled through the regular season, outscoring opponents, 309-12.
The top 10 hitters in the Southington lineup combined for 270 hits in 696 at bats (.388), but the rest of the lineup matched their pace with 19 hits in 49 at bats (.388). It didn’t matter who Piazza shuffled into the game, the results were always the same.
“We had a lot of great teams before that, but if anyone asked me to rate my teams offensively—throw out the tournament—but in the regular season, I would rank them No. 1,” said Piazza. “They had speed, power, and great base running skills. Of course, they were also great defensively with a great pitcher. They had the whole package.”
Over the course of 20 games, the Knights dispatched Bristol Central twice, out-scoring the defending Class L champions, 17-3, in the series. Bristol Eastern, Mercy, Norwalk, Bristol Central, and Holy Cross each rallied to title games during the 1986 postseason, but Southington out-scored them, 63-5, in the regular season.
Then came the unthinkable. The unstoppable force…went quiet. The offensive machine…went cold. When the postseason arrived, Southington’s bats did not. All of a sudden, the Knights couldn’t buy a run.
Southington still managed to manufacture a 5-0 win over NFA in the second round, but the girls had to battle an early deficit to eek a 3-1 win over Amity in the quarterfinals. A 1-0 win over Westhill was like pulling teeth, but even that was better than the championship game.
“This is what shows what a great team they actually were,” said Piazza. “We got into the tournament, and we couldn’t score a damned run. We scored a few in the first round against a team that we probably should have scored 10 against. Amity was a really great team. Against Westhill, we scraped a run…It was the defense.”
Dunbar, Mach, Johnson, and Lumbra formed a stranglehold on the infield. Bradley, Zimmer, and Pelrin were unstoppable in the outfield. It didn’t hurt that the team’s pitcher was a former shortstop or that Silva (18 steals) was one of the speediest catchers in Southington’s history.
All year, the defense seemed lost in the tales of shutouts and blowouts, but in the tournaments they shined.
“We drilled them. They accepted it, and then they performed,” said Piazza. “Fundamentally, they were a great group of players. Every one of them could get a fly ball. They anticipated so well. They knew how to charge ground balls. They could make plays at the plate.”
Somehow, the Knights found a way to win, and the championship game drove home that point.
Holy Cross’ pitcher Tammy Lawton didn’t throw hard, but her movement caught Southington off-balance. The Knights were swinging at high pitches. Southington kept popping up, and Lawton finished the game with a no-hitter against the top offense in the state.
If it wasn’t for Pelrin’s smart baserunning in the bottom of the first inning, the Knights would have lost the game. With a runner in scoring position, Pelrin drew a run-down after rounding first base and stayed alive just long enough for the winning run to cross home plate.
“We played such solid defense in that championship game—and the entire tournament—against good teams,” Piazza said. “We made some great plays, and the infield was the key to those victories. We had first base and third base making key plays, shortstop making great plays, and our second baseman being there for certain tag plays. Tracy wasn’t a huge strikeout pitcher, so the outfield had to make plays, too.”
Perhaps no team in program history has been forced to win in so many different ways. Their regular season offense still stands the test of time. The postseason defense was as good as any in Southington history. The ability to manufacture a run when they were no-hit in the title game is unequaled.
It’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee chose the 1986 Southington High School softball team to be inducted with the Class of 2016. On Wednesday, Nov. 9, they will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
“They went from an offensive machine into a team that could somehow create enough offense to win,” said Piazza. “As an overall group of talented players, those nine starters in 1986 were as good or better than any other team that’s gotten in because of their offensive prowess in the regular season…and the way that they found a way to win in the postseason.”
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460, ext. 104.
To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.