SOUTHINGTON — The legacy of Southington softball is storied. The next chapter comes Saturday afternoon at DeLuca Field in Stratford when the Lady Knights square off with Norwich Free Academy in the Class LL state championship game at 4 p.m.
The No. 6 Blue Knights are appearing in their 23rd state championship game and they will be looking to win title No. 18 while denying No. 8 NFA its first.
Southington is 21-3 on the season. One of those wins came on April 25 in Southington against NFA, 5-3. Since losing to South Windsor 5-0 on May 10, the Blue Knights have won 10 straight.
“We truly we feel we are in a good place as a team,” Southington coach Davina Hernandez said. “The team is not only prepared, but we are playing with confidence.”
In the Southington-NFA meeting on April 25, sophomore Julia Panarella collected the pitching win for the Knights.
On a staff that goes 5-6 deep, Panarella also collected victories in three of Southington’s four postseason wins, including the 5-1 win over No. 2 Trumbull in the semifinals on Monday night at DeLuca Field.
“Julia Panarella has been fantastic for us,” Hernandez said. “She’s not flashy. She moves the ball well and has such precise location. So if we pick up weaknesses in a swing, or if someone has a fundamental issue, we are able to capitalize on that because we know she is going to hit her spots.
“When she hits those spots, we are able to put the ball where we want to put it to get them to miss-hit the ball. We don’t ever try to go for strikeouts. We try for weak ground balls and weak fly balls. She was able to get (Trumbull) to miss-hit the ball quite a bit.”
Panarella went the distance in the tourney-opening 3-1 win over No. 27 Wilton. Julia Theriault threw a complete game in the 7-1 second-round win over Manchester. Panarella got the call in the 3-2 quarterfinal win over No. 19 Ridgefield before the semifinal triumph over Trumbull.
“The’ve both been really hot,” Hernandez said of her two main starters down the stretch. “Julia Theriault had a phenomenal game in the second round. I was going to split them (against Trumbull). I initially planned for (Panarella) to go a couple of innings, but she was great. I said to my assistants, ‘I can’t take her out after striking out the side.’
“We kept her in. I told Julia Theriault, who has been such a phenomenal teammate. I said to be ready the whole game and that if she was going to come in, it would be mid-inning. She was ready and leading the cheers in the dugout.”
Panarella is penciled in to get the start Saturday. Theriault could very well come in for relief.
Who will be in the circle for NFA (21-4) is less clear. Ace Bailey Comeau was struck in her throwing arm by a line drive off the bat of Cheshire’s Mia Juodaitis in the Wildcats’4-2 win in Monday’s second semifinal at DeLuca.
Comeau could not continue that night. However, junior left-hander Sophia DiCocco stepped in and didn’t allow a run in three innings of relief.
“According to our trainer, we are just going to play it by ear,” NFA coach Bryan Burdick said after Monday’s game.
If Comeau can’t go, the Wildcats have a good one in DiCocco. She has a 4-1 record in limited duty this year.
“Sophia has been here three years and has been here before. She really showed some composure. It would have been easy for the wheels to come off,” Burdick said.”She’s as solid as they come. I knew she would be effective.”
Burdick is in his 11th season and this is his first state final during his tenure. As a program, NFA has been to two state finals: in 1984 (6-2 loss to East Haven) and 2007 (1-0 win over Masuk).
“It would be a tremendous honor in the history and legacy of this program,” Burdick said. “We’ve had some great players come through. I think back to that 2007 team and the team before that was 1984. I think back to all of the great coaches that we’ve had. They all had teams that could have gotten there, but just fell short.
“This championship would not be just for us, but for every player who’s played in this program.”
Burdick knows it’s going to be a big task to get by Southington.
“They are going to present a different look (from Cheshire),” Burdick said. “They are very offensive minded. They are a very good defensive team, too. They are fast and they are aggressive. Every game that we’ve played has prepped us for the next game. We saw Maria (Hanchuk) for South Windsor on Friday and that allowed us to grind out at bats (against Cheshire). Now I’m hoping their aggressiveness prepares us for Southington on Saturday.”
Hernandez said a difficult schedule has prepared her team for this run at the Class LL title. The three losses to Bristol Eastern, Cheshire and South Windsor have proven to be a positive for the Blue Knights.
“The losses taught us what we didn’t want to feel like again,” Hernandez said. “It taught us the little things we needed to focus on. It taught us that we are a lot better than that.
“I thought one of the worst games we played was in one of our losses against South Windsor. I thought one of the best games we played was against Cheshire and we lost … We are happy because our schedule gave us tournament-type experience.”
Offensively, it was Gabby Verderame-Malachowski who had the big blow for Southington in the semifinal win over Trumbull. She blasted a three run homer to center in Southington’s four-run third inning. That would be all the offense the Knights would need.
Hernandez praised the growth of Alex Rogers this season. The junior earned the starting second baseman’s job, but was being flexed out in the lineup. She is now Southington’s hottest hitter and batting in the heart of the order.
Hernandez said Rogers is batting close to .600. Seniors Abby Lamson and Chrissy Marotto have been crushing the ball all year as has junior Kelsey Fernandez.
The team batting average was .392 after the regular season.
“This is probably the highest team batting averages we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez said the 2019 Knights have also done more team bonding than any of her previous squads.
“They are a close-knit group that really likes each other. It’s been an absolute pleasure coaching these girls.”