By KEVIN ROBERTS
All of the hard work, sweat and tears accumulated by Southington softball over the last four years came down to one final out this past Saturday in the Class LL state championship game at Frank DeLuca Hall of Fame Field in Stratford.
Leading 7-6, the sixth-seeded Lady Knights were one out away from their first state title since 2015. On the other hand, eighth-seeded NFA had the tying run at first base and had already scored four runs in the top of the seventh inning.
When first baseman Katie Gundersen squeezed a foul pop near the Southington dugout for the final out, Knight players, coaches and fans erupted in joy. Southington (22-3) won 7-6 over NFA and claimed its 18th championship, the first since 2015. The Knights improved to 18-5 in championship games, and Davina Hernandez won her third title as head coach.
“It means the world. I’m so happy,” senior captain Abby Lamson said. “This senior class, we’ve been working for it all four years. We’re so close, honestly, I don’t know if most teams can say that all the time. We’re just one big group and we all wanted it so bad.”
It wasn’t easy by any stretch. Southington led 7-2 entering the top of the seventh inning, but two errors and some solid NFA hitting brought home four runs and made the score 7-6 with one out and the tying run on base. Freshman pitcher Sam Sullivan, who had replaced senior Julia Theriault in the circle, got a strikeout for the second out, then the pop out to Gundersen finally extinguished the Wildcat rally.
“I think the nerves got to us a little bit, but I think we pulled it together, and we were ready to win it,” said senior captain Chrissy Marotto, who was named the game’s most valuable player.
When the postgame medals and plaques were handed out, Hernandez shed some tears.
“They’re just a really good group of people, I just really enjoyed coaching them, and that’s why I got so emotional,” Hernandez said, “just because, this group, they just mean so much to me. I’ve really enjoyed watching them grow.”
The road to the 18th Southington championship wasn’t an easy one. The Knights were the underdogs, not the dominant squad of seasons’ past. Hernandez recalled what former coach John Bores had told her after she captured her first championship in 2014.
“He said: Enjoy this moment, because it may be your only one,” Hernandez said. “It’s a lot harder than people think to win state championships. I don’t take anything for granted. We just take it one game at a time.”
Southington beat second-seeded Trumbull 5-2 on June 3 at DeLuca Field to reach the final. In the final against NFA, the Knights broke a 2-2 deadlock with two runs in the bottom of the third inning, then added two more in the fourth to go ahead 6-2. When Southington added a run in the sixth to make the score 7-2, it seemed like mere window-dressing. Those insurance runs turned out to be really important.
“We hit the ball well, and we took advantage of the errors that they made,” said Marotto, who had two doubles, a single and three runs scored. “We had hitting before the game at our field, and everyone was killing the ball, so we were ready. We were ready for anything, we were ready for both pitchers.”
Alex Rogers singled, scored a run and drove in two runs while Kelsey Fernandez stole a base, scored a run and drove in a run. Kayla Pelletier added a walk and run scored. Lamson tripled, scored a run and drove in two more, one a sacrifice fly and the other on a groundout. Lamson had been in a slump throughout the tournament, but came up big in the final.
“I felt really good all week in practice. I was putting in my extra reps, and just feeling really good off of live, off of front toss. I said to myself, it’s going to happen,” Lamson said. “Just the pure amount of at bats I’m getting and I’m hitting the ball hard, it’s going to find a hole. It was amazing, I was hoping [the triple] was going to stay fair. I was saying fair, fair, fair as I was running.”
Sophomore Julia Panarella held NFA to two runs (one earned) on four hits and struck out four over six innings. Hernandez said she remembered the regular season game against NFA, when the Wildcats scored three times off of Panarella in the seventh inning to cut a five-run deficit to two. Southington won that matchup 5-3 on April 25 at Southington High School.
Hernandez brought in Theriault to start the seventh of the final. A single and back-to-back errors loaded the bases with no outs. Brenna Comeau’s two-run single made the score 7-4, and Theriault’s day was done. She was replaced with Sullivan with no outs and runners on second and third.
“Julia was able to get some groundballs, and we just didn’t make the plays. I actually thought she threw very well, considering the number of runs that came in, on mostly errors,” Hernandez said. “I just think that we could have played a little bit better defense behind Julia and to get those three outs, but we didn’t. She came right off, she’s a great teammate, patted Sam on the back as she came in.”
Sullivan traded a run for the inning’s first out, a Hailee Schrader grounder to Gundersen. Julie Vincent followed with an RBI single, however, and the score was 7-6. Marotto and company weren’t worried.
“She’s a great pitcher, and I’ve known that since tryouts,” Marotto said of Sullivan. “I saw her at tryouts, and I was like whoa, she’s a good pitcher. We had full confidence, she shut it down, and she did great. I’m so happy for her.”
Sullivan got the next two outs and was mobbed by her teammates after the final out.
“Sam, as a freshman, coming in, getting a double off the bench, and then coming in on the mound was just unbelievable,” Hernandez said.
After two semifinal losses sandwiched around a defeat in the final, Southington had its championship.
“It’s my senior year and we ended with a win, so that’s all I can ask for. I’m proud of everyone,” Marotto said.
Fellow seniors Lamson, Theriault, senior captain Gabby Malachowski and Diane Williams also ended their careers with a state title.
JUNE 3—The Knights scored four runs in the top of the third inning on their way to a win over the Eagles.
Marotto scored the first run when a throw from the Trumbull catcher sailed over the third baseman. Lamson and Rogers, who both walked, were still on base for Malachowski, who smacked an 0-1 pitch over the wall in right center field for a 4-0 Southington lead.
“I smoked the ball the first time, and I was like, I’m not going to leave the bases loaded again,” Malachowski said. “I’m going to go up there and hit the ball as hard as I could.”
Southington added a run in the top of the seventh inning when Lamson reached on an error. Marotto, who was hit by a pitch to lead off the inning, scored on the error. The five runs were all Panarella needed. She gave up one unearned run on three hits in her complete-game effort. Panarella struck out nine and walked one on 122 pitches (83 strikes).
“From the warmups, I knew I was on. I was throwing good today, I was ready to win this game,” Panarella said.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Kevin Roberts, email him at KRoberts@SouthingtonObserver.com