SOUTHINGTON — Why not?
If the Southington softball team is to complete its historic fourth straight trip through the CIAC Class LL state tournament, the Lady Knights must beat Fairfield-Ludlowe.
SHS did so a year ago in the Class LL state semifinals.
The Lady Knights also beat their familiar foe from the south in the 2021 Class LL title game.
So, with Southington (26-0) seeded No. 1 and Fairfield-Ludlowe (25-1) seeded No. 2 in this season’s Class LL state playoffs, it just makes sense the pair should meet in the 2023 title game.
The first pitch of this year’s encounter is scheduled for Saturday night at 7 p.m. at UConn’s Burrill Family Field.
“I’m not at all surprised to play Ludlowe,” Southington senior shortstop Sam Rogers said following the Lady Knights’ 3-0 victory over Ridgefield in the semifinals. “I was expecting it all throughout (the state playoffs). We looked at their side of the bracket. There were a lot of strong teams, but a lot of people expected it to be us and Ludlowe again.”
Beating Ludlowe on Saturday night would bring a fourth straight state title to Southington. A year ago, the Lady Knights established themselves as the premier softball program in the nation with a record 20th state title.
In seeking the school’s 21st state title in softball, this year’s Southington squad has won its 26 games in convincing fashion, outscoring its foes 256-11.
Dating back to last year, the Lady Knights take a 40-game win streak into the title game. They avenged their only loss over the past two seasons by beating Masuk this year in the regular season 11-2.
Ludlowe, meanwhile, is the class of FCIAC once again this season. Since losing to St. Joseph’s 9-8 on April 12, the Falcons have reeled off 21 straight wins, 13 of them by shutout. They also avenged their lone defeat by topping St. Joe’s 2-0 in the FCIAC Tournament final.
Ludlowe will be the third consecutive FCIAC team opposite Southington in the state playoffs. Southington’s shutout of Ridgefield came after victories over Danbury in the quarterfinals (13-3) and Wilton in the second round (7-0).
Ludlowe reached the title game by outlasting Newtown 6-4 in Tuesday’s first Class LL semifinal at West Haven’s Biondi Field.
The Falcons beat NFA 2-0 in the quarterfinals. Like Southington, Ludlowe received a first-round bye before defeating New Canaan 5-1 in the second round.
Like many other Southington seniors, Tuesday night’s winning pitcher, Stella Blanchard, the 2023 Gatorade Player of the Year, has been a part of the past two SHS victories over Ludlowe. Blanchard is seeking a personal three-peat along with classmates Sam Rogers, Emily Moskal, Nicole Szuba, Emma Quint, Elyse Picard and Hailey Zaczynski.
Blanchard, who like Rogers is committed to Marist, will once again start for SHS in the circle. She went the distance in shutting out Ridgefield and has been a dominant force for the Lady Knights all season.
Blanchard (13-0) hasn’t allowed an earned run this season in 71 innings. She has struck out 151 batters, walked just 10 and allowed just 15 hits.
Along with being announced the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year on Friday, Blanchard was recently named the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Pitcher of the Year.
Just as dominant as Blanchard has been in the circle so, too, has the Southington offense been at the plate. The Lady Knights are hitting a collective .372, with six different players above the .400 mark.
Ten different Lady Knights have hit home runs and, as a team, Southington has clubbed 28. Szuba and Picard lead the way with six round-trippers each.
Rogers, who starts at shortstop and hits third in the lineup, leads the Lady Knights with seven doubles and two triples. She’s hitting .414 and also leads the team with 26 RBI.
Moskal has the highest team batting average at .443, while junior cleanup hitter Maddie Furniss is hitting at a .439 clip with 24 RBI.
Quint may be the hottest Lady Knight at the plate, going 5-for-6 in the last two games with a pair of doubles in Tuesday’s win over Ridgefield.
Like last year’s seniors before them, Rogers and this year’s crop of upperclassmen have never lost in the state playoffs. (The group was denied a 2020 season as freshmen due to the pandemic.)
As a sophomore, Blanchard watched Southington walk off with a 4-3 victory over Ludlowe in the 2021 title game. Last year, she and her fellow upperclassmen played pivotal roles in Southington’s 7-3 victory over the Falcons in the state semifinals.
“We are really excited to play Ludlowe,” Blanchard said.
As for trying to continue SHS’s dominance in softball?
“We know there is a lot of pressure (to win), but we take that and use it in our effort in games,” Blanchard said. “We have so many people behind our backs rooting for us. Having a big crowd behind us really helps us.
“We are confident, but we are classy. We try not to gain too many haters,” Blanchard added.
Winning state titles has become almost commonplace on the Pleasant Steet diamond. SHS also won three straight state titles from 1981—83 and from 2013-2015. Winning a fourth straight title Saturday would equal Southington’s grand slam from 1985-1988.
The last time Southington lost in the state playoffs was in 2018, when the Lady Knights fell to eventual Class LL champion Amity in the semifinals.
The next year, Southington started its current string of state titles by beating NFA, 7-6.
After the 2020 season was cancelled, SHS beat Ludlowe in 2021 for the program’s 19th state title. Last year, the Lady Knights established themselves as the only high school softball program in the nation with 20 state titles.
As a result, this year’s SHS squad was deemed the preseason No. 1 team in the state by Gametime CT and its media panel of voters. The Lady Knights have not left the top spot all season.
“It’s like a culture now; there is an expectation to win,” said SHS head coach Davina Hernandez, who recently won her 200th game and has six state titles in her nine seasons in charge of the Lady Knights.
“But it’s just not the winning,” Hernandez added. “When you are around our girls, you’ll see it’s a lot more than that. There is a lot more that goes into that tradition and that culture. A big part of that is being good teammates and being supportive of each other. I know that sounds cliché, but it really makes a big difference when it comes down to a championship team.”
As the latest in a long line of Lady Knights who’ve established the program’s culture of winning, Rogers and Blanchard had this to say about Southington’s long run of success.
“I wouldn’t say there is pressure; it’s more of an excitement,” said Rogers, who was named the state’s top position player a year ago as a junior and has picked up where she left off despite off-season surgery on a torn labrum suffered in last year’s Central Connecticut Conference Tournament.
“At this point, it’s kind of an expectation,” Rogers added. “Everyone expects us to go to the championship and it just pushes us to work that much harder.”
“It’s not a negative pressure. If anything, it’s a positive thing,” Rogers explained.
Blanchard agreed with her fellow Marist commit.
“We were excited to come back again this year (and do it again),” Blanchard said. “We had a lot of seniors leave, but (returned) a lot of juniors who’d be seniors this year and we were ready to play. We knew we’d have a very strong team.”
The closest Ludlowe has come to losing since its lone loss of the season was on May 1, when it needed eight innings to turn back Ridgefield 3-2.
The Tigers never got another shot at Ludlowe. Seeded No. 2 in the FCIAC Tournament, Ridgefield was upset by Norwalk in the quarterfinals.
Ridgefield head coach Lauren Greywacz, however, has seen both SHS and Ludlowe up close and says both could come out on top Saturday night.
“We’ll see who comes out and wins it,” Greywacz said about SHS-Ludlowe III. “Anything can happen. Anyone can win any game.”
As for what makes SHS and Ludlowe stand out from the rest? Greywacz wouldn’t say either team has “anything special,” but conceded both squads are “tough” outs.
“Are they tough? Sure,” said Greywacz. “But we’re tough. And I don’t think they have anything special. Maybe they’ve played a little longer together. I really don’t know what it is.”
With a combined 51 wins, SHS and Ludlowe have certainly stood out this season. One, however, will be left standing Saturday night.
“It’s something (the girls) set their minds on, something they dream of every season; it’s their goal,” Hernandez said. “I encourage them to set those personal goals throughout the season that allow us to get there.”