By BRIAN JENNINGS
They still have fun at practices, but there’s something different about these first few practices. Southington coach Davina Hernandez said that she noticed a different level of seriousness with the Lady Knights coming into this season.
Ever since No. 9 Trumbull stopped the sixth-seeded Knights from winning their 18th Class LL title by a run, 4-3, in last year’s state final, the Knights have been all about business, and they’re on a mission. Hernandez said that the team is already focusing a lot on communication, getting bunts down, and little things that will make a big difference in close games.
“I can definitely see a change in how serious they are at practice,” said Hernandez. “They’re very motivated and driven.”
It’s almost a sure bet that the Knights will be right back in the Class LL final, as they’ve appeared in at least semifinals of the state tournament in the last six years. They’re returning players with championship experience, but it doesn’t get any easier for the Knights.
“I’m hearing them pick each other up and remind the other girls to communicate, and that’s going to be really good because we have a really strong schedule,” said Hernandez. “I’m looking forward to that.”
It won’t get any easier for the Knights, but one thing’s for sure. Whether it’s taking charge of the program or providing the younger players with practice shirts, Hernandez said that the seniors have shown a plethora of responsibility.
“They’re doing that all on their own,” said Hernandez. “They led a meeting with me about their approach to the season, and I was really impressed with that.”
The Knights finished the 2017 regular season at 18-2 overall, winning the CCC Central Blue Division with a perfect 11-0 record in the CCC Central Region (4-0 in CCC Central Blue) and tying for second in the CCC. They advanced to the Class LL final for the first time since 2015 with wins over No. 27 New Canaan, No. 11 Darien, No. 14 EO Smith, and No. 2 Cheshire, making it the 22nd appearance in the program’s history.
The Knights lost six of 37 players to graduation after last season, including an all-state right fielder, and a pair of all-conference players: a catcher and second baseman. Two of those players were the top hitters on last year’s team, and the other tied the team high of stolen bases.
Seniors returning to this year’s team include Mackenzie Beaupre (IF), Francesca Ferrante (IF), Sarah Myrick (OF), and Rosalese Waskowicz (C/OF), and Kara Zazzaro (P). Ferrante and Zazzaro were named as team captains for the upcoming season. The pair was all-conference last year along with Myrick.
Hernandez said that Ferrante is swinging a big bat right now and definitely being a leader in the infield.
“She had a really big bat for us last year and played excellent at first base,” said Hernandez. “She’s been really solid there for the last couple of years.”
As the returning ace for the Knights, Zazzaro went 20-3 last year with an ERA of 0.9, a complete game, a shutout, and a no hitter. She struck out 212 of the 512 batters she faced (473 at-bats), allowing 58 hits, 29 walks, and 24 runs (17 earned) in 132 innings of work.
Coming into this season, Hernandez said that Zazzaro worked really hard with her pitching coach over the summer on incorporating more pitches and hitting different locations over the plate. As successful of a pitcher that she is, she hasn’t been on the mound to win her own state championship. She’s been part of a team that has, but she hasn’t been that starting pitcher, which Hernandez said largely affected the way she prepared for this season.
Zazzaro doesn’t just have the fast stuff. Hernandez said that Zazzaro’s goal is to really get batters off balance and force them to hit ground balls and fly balls so that the defense can help her out.
“She said that she doesn’t ever want to look too far ahead, but she definitely feels that she has some unfinished business,” said Hernandez. “After a championship game like that we all reflected on what we could’ve done better, and for Kara, incorporating different pitches and speeds was really important for her.”
Juniors returning include Abigail Lamson (C/IF), Chrissy Marotto (IF), Madison Rocha (IF/OF), Julia Theriault (P), Gabriella Verderame-Malachowski (IF/OF), and Diane Williams (C/OF). Lamson is the team’s top returning hitter, batting .486 last year with 34 hits, 33 RBI, 25 runs scored, and eight doubles in 80 plate appearances (70 at-bats). Marotto is the only returning junior that was all-conference last year.
Hernandez said that she thinks it’ll be a big year for Lamson.
“Whether we decide to put her at third or behind the plate catching, she’s definitely very vocal and someone that makes it easy to be a verbal leader on the field,” said Hernandez. “She obviously proved last year that she’s able to step up in those big games.”
Sophomores returning include Kelsey Fernandez (P/OF), Callie Gendron (C/IF), Katherine Gundersen (IF/OF), Katelyn Lipsky (P/OF), Alexandra Rogers (IF), and Kristin Rose (IF).
For the past couple of years, the Knights ran the bulk of their offense through small ball with six-straight left-handed batters in the lineup. Hernandez said that the team is shifting from bunters and slap hitters back to the traditional, solid Southington hitting.
“We should be more of a contact-hitting team this year than we were last year,” said Hernandez. “I see us more as a base-hit type of team this year with a lot of singles and doubles.”
Hernandez said that minimizing errors in big games or against teams with big hitters will be the team’s biggest area of improvement.
Following a realignment of the CCC, Southington is now in the West Colonial Division along with Conard, Hall, and NW Catholic. The West Patriot Division consists of Avon, Farmington, Glastonbury, and Simsbury.
Hernandez is entering her fifth year as head coach of the varsity program.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at email@example.com.