STRATFORD — The Southington softball tradition continues with another state championship.
The No. 6 Blue Knights will raise banner No. 18 after defeating No. 8 Norwich Free Academy 7-6 Saturday in the Class LL title game at Frank DeLuca Hall of Fame Field.
The Blue Knights (22-3) scored two runs in the first, third and fourth innings. They also tacked on a critical single run in the sixth in a relentless display of aggressive base running that had a part in forcing four NFA miscues.
But the Blue Knights needed to withstand a four-run, seventh-inning rally by Norwich Free Academy to seal the title. Freshman Samantha Sullivan stranded the tying run at second with two outs. She induced a foul pop that came to rest in first baseman Katie Gundersen’s glove and ignited the celebration.
“This is amazing,” said Southington senior and Class LL MVP Chrissy Marotto. “It feels great to get this championship. This is overwhelming. We have an amazing team and I’m so glad we were able to get the win.”
Southington, playing in its 23rd state final, used its outs well. The Lady Knights scored four runs on groundouts and another on a sacrifice fly. The other two runs came on an error and a squeeze bunt by Alex Rogers, all on the same play, in the third inning.
NFA (21-5) broke the ice with an unearned run in the top of the first inning off Southington sophomore starter Julia Panarella. Leadoff hitter Hailee Schrader reached on an error and was sacraficed over to second base by Julie Vincent. Bailey Comeau, with two outs, came up clutch by lofting a base hit into centerfield for a 1-0 Wilcats lead.
Southington made Comeau, the NFA starter, labor in the bottom of the first inning, bringing eight batters to the plate and collecting a pair of runs on groundouts to go up 2-1.
Marotto started the Southington first with a booming double into the left-centerfield gap. Kelsey Fernadez reached on an error on her bunt. Abby Lamson then took a walk, the first of three for Southington in the first, to load the bases.
Rogers struck a grounder to short. She was thrown out at first, but Marotto came in to score the tying run.
Gabby Verderame-Malachowski walked to reload the bases and Nicole Greco backed it up with another RBI groundout that put Southington up 2-1.
Katie Gunderson took a walk to load the bases for a third time, but Comeau was able to induce a popup to end the inning.
“We wanted to come out strong after they scored that first run,” Marotto said. “We wanted to come back. I was ready to go and hit the ball as hard as I could.”
NFA tied it 2-2 with a homer by No. 9 hitter Alexandria Burdick.
Southington took a 4-2 lead in the third inning in dramatic fashion. Lamson started the inning with a triple to the right-field fence. She came sliding home on a suicide squeeze by Rogers.
Meanwhile, Rogers advanced to second and drew a throw. It sailed into centerfield and the junior came all the way around to score Southington’s fourth run of the game.
Southington grabbed two more runs in the fourth inning sparked by a lead-off walk drawn by Kayla Pelletier.
After the free pass, NFA head coach Bryan Burdick summoned Sophia DiCocco out of left field to pitch. DiCocco threw three scoreless innings of relief in NFA’s 4-2 semifinal win over Cheshire on Monday.
She was greeted on Saturday by a Marotto base hit up the middle. Kelsey Fernandez then cashed in Pelletier with a RBI groundout to short that made it a 5-2 game.
On the play, Marotto went to third, which put her in position to score on a sacrafice fly to left field by Lamson to cap the inning.
Southington added a run in the sixth on a Lamson RBI groundout. The play scored Marotto, who had doubled to start the inning.
Sullivan came off the bench with a key pinch-hit single in the rally.
That final run proved to be critical as NFA didn’t go quietly. Southington coach Davina Hernandez summoned senior Julia Theriault to pitch the seventh and Diane Williams to catch. Theriault was greeted by a pair of infield hits and an error. Burdick made it hurt with a two-run single that brought the visitors within 7-4.
It was then Hernandez brought in Sullivan.
The freshman gave up a RBI groundout Schrader to make it 7-5. Julie Vincent followed with a RBI single. The gap was cut to 7-6.
Vincent also moved up to second on the throw. The tying run was in scoring position with only one out.
Sullivan then fanned Sara Cote and got Comeau to pop out to end it.
“I didn’t expect to come in the game,” Sullivan said. “I was proud to be able to end the game. I’m really excited. My last pitch was a two-seamer on the outside corner. Once that ball hit the glove I was just thinking that we did it. We were the champions.”
Sullivan got the save. The win went to Panarella, who allowed two runs on four hits. She fanned three and walked none.
“It’s crazy to be the winning pitcher in the state championship. Literally insane,” Panarella said. “Everyone wanted to win so bad. I knew we could. I knew it from the start.”
Panarella said she had every pitch in her arsenal working for her on Saturday.
“It was a great day for pitching,” she said. “I was hitting my spots so well and we were making plays in the field. Clearly, the hitting was good.”
In the first meeting between these two teams during the regular season, a 5-3 Blue Knights’ win at Southington on April 25, the Wildcats started to get around on Panarella late in the game. That factored into Hernandez’s decision to bring in Theriault, the winning pitcher in Southington’s 7-1 second-round win over Manchester.
“They are a team that gets better as the game goes on,” Hernandez said. “They have good hitters up and down the lineup and off the bench, and we wanted to switch it up a little bit. Julia’s changeup wasn’t working the best today. That affected her ability to get people to miss-hit the ball and swing and miss. I was happy to see Sam come in and pick her up.”
Hernandez had confidence her freshman righty would come through.
“She’s been a rock all year,” Hernandez said. “She started on JV for us and got a lot of pitching experience. We had her throw a lot of our JV games this year to get her that experience. It showed she’s definitely worth taking a look at in varsity. She showed us she can make an impact.”
Marotto was named the game’s MVP. She went 3-for-4 on the day with two doubles and three runs scored.
This was Southington’s first title since 2015. That crown capped a Southington three-peat from 2013-15.
“This was a total team effort,” Hernandez said.