STRATFORD - When Julia Panarella toed the rubber in a game against Norwich Free Academy on April 25, the Southington softball team’s sophomore pitcher wasn’t supposed to throw more than a couple innings.
That was the game plan, anyway, laid out by head coach Davina Hernandez.
Headed into a three-game stretch against Middletown, NFA and Cheshire, Hernandez decided she was going to split the pitching duties between Katelyn Lipsky, Julia Theriault and Panarella. It had been that three-headed attack that had split the innings during the team’s 5-1 start to that point, and Hernandez planned to use the three in a 2-2-3 or 2-3-2 format innings-wise in each of the three games.
And then Hernandez had a change of heart, and it happened quickly.
After informing Panarella she was going to start against NFA just minutes before first pitch, Hernandez watched as her sophomore stud pounded the strike zone against the Wildcats, taking a two-hit shutout into the seventh before squashing a late rally in a 5-3 victory.
Panarella had just shown Hernandez an endurance level that caught her by pleasant surprise in throwing the Blue Knights’ first complete game of the season.
“People had told me you’re really gonna start to see that one of your pitchers is gonna pull ahead to that No. 1 role,” Hernandez said. “I said to a lot of these people that I see more than one of my pitchers being No. 1, and I think in the postseason, we’ve shown that.”
Yes, Southington did have more than one pitcher throw a complete game in this year’s postseason. And, yes, the team’s three arms had done a great job dividing their time in the circle.
But on Saturday, in a rematch against NFA with a Class LL state championship on the line, it was Panarella who had proven her capability to the coaching staff and emerged as the shutdown option.
She didn’t disappoint, pitching six innings and allowing two runs on four hits in helping the Blue Knights to their 18th state championship in a 7-6 victory.
Panarella gave way to Theriault in the seventh inning, and the senior was then relieved by freshman Samantha Sullivan, who polished off the game for Southington.
In the process, Panarella and Sullivan gave Blue Knight backers a sweet glimpse of what the future of the program will look like. Two of Panarella’s senior teammates couldn’t hide their excitement about what the second-year standout will be able to do for the next two seasons.
“She’s one of the best in the state, for sure, especially for her age,” Abby Lamson said. “She literally is so composed. You would not think she’s a sophomore. She stays so calm and so collected on the mound, and we feed off of that. When she doesn’t show she’s bothered, it makes us wanna do more for her and keep her like that. I just can’t wait to see what she does in the future because she’s a force.”
Added Chrissy Marotto: “She’s gonna be crazy. I can’t believe she’s a sophomore. She’s held our team together for a lot of games. She has a great mentality up there on the mound, and I can’t wait to watch them kill it in a championship next year.”
Sullivan also impressed the coaching staff this season after being brought up to varsity at the end of the year.
“She’s a great all-around player. She hits, she pitches and plays outfield,” Hernandez said. “She’s gonna be a kid you wanna watch out for in the next couple years.”
And that’s what epitomizes what makes this team dangerous and why the program will only be expected to continue its excellence. The program loses five seniors who were critical to the team’s state title run (Marotto, Lamson, Theriault Gaby Verderame-Malachowski, Diane Williams). But Southington softball always reloads.
Panarella and Sullivan represent just two of the future stars on the team, one that is almost certain to find itself at the top of the state rankings and vying for another Class LL crown in 2020.
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or email@example.com