SOUTHINGTON - When the Southington softball team lost a 4-3 state championship game to Trumbull in 2017, there was the obvious, immediate heartbreak and the long-lasting pain attached to coming achingly close to a title.
Over the next two seasons, that loss provided some motivation to players who had started that season, such as now-seniors Chrissy Marotto and Abby Lamson, to make it back to the state championship game.
And they have done just that, as No. 6 Southington (21-3) and No. 8 Norwich Free Academy (19-4) face off at 4 p.m. today at DeLuca Field as Southington looks to wins its 18th state title in its 23rd appearance and first since 2015.
That stinging defeat to Trumbull, however, did not simply provide some extra fuel for the Blue Knights. It also brought forth an infrastructure change from head coach Davina Hernandez.
After the 2017 loss, Hernandez discussed what crippled her team’s chance of going out as champions: the five errors they made and the communication breakdowns throughout the game.
“I remember those errors haunting us,” Hernandez said. “I still talk about that final game. I talked about it all year long this year.”
What made the loss more regrettable for Hernandez was that one of her core beliefs during her time as a player for Bristol Central in the mid-2000s and as a coach for Southington was that defense wins championships.
So after the humbling title game loss, Hernandez switched her team’s main focus from being an offensive-driven unit to being better disciplined on defense. That’s been the Blue Knights’ strength, she says, over the last two seasons.
They still can rack up runs - they scored 15 or more runs in eight games this season, including a pair of 21-run games - but defense has been the calling card, evidenced by allowing 1.5 runs through their four state tournament games.
In 2018, that defense-first mindset worked in helping the program reach the Class LL state semifinals. This season, the defense has been even more necessary due to the lack of a true strikeout pitcher.
“We’ve really sort of pulled away from our one powerhouse pitcher type of role,” Hernandez said, “but I think our defense and our discipline have been fantastic.”
Hernandez opted to rely on a trio of arms instead of one top option, and the result has been a pleasant surprise.
Katelyn Lipski, Julia Theriault and Julia Panarella have shined this season and have impressed opposing coaches and umpires while taking them by surprise.
“I’ve had a lot of people compliment them and say that they didn’t expect to see such quality pitching from us because we use multiple pitchers,” Hernandez said. “They’re kind of expecting us to present these below-average pitchers, but I can’t tell you how many compliments we’ve gotten about them all season.”
Southington’s deployment of pitchers contrasts from most teams that have made it to the season’s final weekend. That includes NFA, which mainly used two-time All-State pitcher Bailey Comeau this season. However, junior Sophia DiCocco was great after being forced to step into the circle in a semifinal win over Cheshire when Comeau left with an injury, and may be called upon again if Comeau misses the final.
“I think we may be one of the only teams left in the tournament who have used more than one pitcher. … We’ve had more than one pitcher throw a complete game in this tournament,” Hernandez said. “[NFA has] two very, very solid pitchers. That’s another question I continue to get, ‘What do you think of NFA’s pitcher getting taken out in the semifinal. What does that mean for you?’
“I really told everybody it doesn’t mean anything because their No. 2 pitcher is very good. She’s one of those kids people have been saying for a long time, ‘Wait ’til you get a chance to see this kid pitch.’”
Whether they face Comeau or DiCocco, the Blue Knights will also be focusing on limiting two things they have worked on all season in preparing them for this moment.
In 2017, one of the culprits of the poor defense and lack of strong communication was that the players simply couldn’t hear each other. It was too loud at DeLuca Field, and they weren’t accustomed to it. This season, Hernandez pumped in loud music during practices to simulate the raucous atmosphere.
Also, Hernandez introduced a new color-coded system at the plate, teaching her players to keep in mind red zones and green zones to help them stay disciplined. The red zones are mainly made up of outside pitches, and the green zones are mostly middle and inside pitches.
Hernandez says the new system has aided her team’s ability to be patient and wait for a great pitch to hit, and it has helped her girls punch the ball the opposite way, something they struggled with at the beginning of the season, but now is one of their strengths.
It was able to show those improvements early in the season, when Southington beat NFA in the clubs’ regular-season matchup, a 5-3 victory on April 25.
That game, in Herandez’s mind, won’t mean anything when the two square off today against NFA head coach Bryan Burdick, one whom she believes is one of Connecticut’s best, most underrated coaches.
“When we beat NFA earlier this year, people said, ‘Oh we already beat them this year.’ People always jump to that,” Hernandez said. “But to me, that doesn’t really mean anything. It’s a clean slate. If you go into the championship game like that, [thinking it’s] no big deal, that’s when you’re gonna get it handed to you.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org