Cromwell softball defeated a pair of conference rivals last week to win a Class S state championship, ousting Old Lyme and North Branford to capture the program’s first title.
It was a perfect ending for a Panthers team that got the ultimate revenge.
Following an 18-win regular season, Cromwell softball was upset by Old Lyme 3-1 in the Shoreline Conference (SLC) semifinals on May 24.
Exactly two weeks later, the Panthers avenged the loss with an identical 3-1 victory over their conference rivals from Old Lyme in the state tourney semifinals at West Haven High School on June 7.
Junior Lily Kenney struck out 10 from the mound and connected on a key double in the 4th inning to propel the Panthers.
With the game scoreless in the bottom of the 4th, Kenney was facing a full count and delivered a shot down the left field line to reach second base.
Kenney said she used her experience as a pitcher to help her at the plate.
“I knew that as a picture I wouldn't want to walk a batter, so I was looking for a strike. I put all my power into that at-bat,” recalled Kenney
Catcher Victoria Wiatrak then slapped a double, driving Kenney home for the go-ahead run, before Grace McFarlin stepped to the plate and duplicated the feat by hitting a double of her own, sending Wiatrak home.
McFarlin would later score later in the inning following a double from Samantha Smith.
Both Wiatrak’s and McFarlin’s 4th inning hits came on first pitches.
Prior to the decisive inning, Cromwell’s lineup had struggled with Old Lyme pitcher Madison Grady, so Cromwell head coach Angelo Morello wanted his team to attack.
“Any good picture is going to try and get a head of the count and we wanted to jump on her fast ball. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but that 4th inning was key,” stated Morello, “We forced them to make some mistakes out there and in this environment you can’t make mistakes and they made a couple more than us tonight.”
Cromwell’s willingness to sacrifice life and limb enabled the gritty team to maintain the lead.
In the top of the fourth inning, Malena Signorello ran over from first base to make a miraculous catch in foul territory as she collided with the fence. Signorello’s snag was the third out and brought the well-traveled Cromwell faithful to their feet.
“I heard people saying it was out and I knew it was not so I just kept going,” Signorello said of the wayward ball. “I didn’t really care if there was a fence or not, I just needed to get the out.”
McFarlin and Kenney then each took a turn with clutch catches in the sixth inning. McFarlin ran up from left field and made a sliding snare to rob Anna Eichholz of a hit before Kenney went face first into the dirt to make a diving grab of a short bloop from Ava Roth.
“Those are big time plays in big time games and we had to have them tonight,” Morello said of the team’s highlight-reel catches.
Cromwell had defeated Old Lyme twice in the regular season prior to being upset in the SLC tourney.
Kenney said the conference loss was still fresh in the player’s minds prior to the game, adding, “That is all we talked about. We used it to fuel our drive in this game and we were so pumped and ready to play them.”
The semifinal win advanced the Panthers to the title game where they would face the Thunderbird of North Branford, who had beaten Old Lyme in the SLC championship game.
Playing at Frank DeLuca Hall of Fame field in Stratford, the Panthers again leaned on Kenney’s arm and pair of home runs from Signorello and Wiatrak in a 3-0 win on June 11.
Kenney went all seven innings, allowing only one hit and striking out 11 to earn the championship game’s Most Valuable Player (MVP). She praised the defense protecting her, adding, “I have all the trust in my defense and I know they have my back. I love them with all my heart.”
Signorello again provided the boost needed, but this time she cleared the fence instead of running into it.
In the top of the fourth inning, Signorello connected on a two-run homer to deep left, sending home Wiatrak.
Wiatrak then sent one over the same fence in the 6th inning to give the Panthers a three-run cushion heading into the final frame.
Both home runs came with two outs and Morello said the timely hitting was a reflection of his team’s mental makeup in tight spots.
“It’s a relaxed bunch, a loose bunch, a confident bunch,” said Morello. “It’s amazing, anytime we step on that diamond it doesn't matter who we play.”
The triumph in Stratford was extra special for the team’s four seniors, who had graduated high school the day before–June 10–-and were able to help deliver the program’s first state title.
Jaime Anderson, Madison Tessmer, Stephanie Esposito, and [Samantha] Smith all played vital roles during the title trek.
The foursome had to endure a lot of setbacks over the past four years, particularly as sophomore when the entire season was washed away because of the COVID-cancellation.
“It was really tough losing a season. We just had to come back and be leaders and show the younger girls what to do,” reflected Anderson, who was the team’s center fielder. “It’s a great feeling. I couldn't ask for anything better to be honest. Throughout the whole year we got no ink, nobody would talk about us, but now we’ll be talked about.”
Tessmer, who started at shortstop, said she got emotional out on the field knowing it was her last high school game, adding, “We have been on many little league teams together and this is a family-based team. I love them so much. The journey definitely took a lot of hard work and it all paid off.”
Tessmer will continue her softball career at Bay Path University. But for Esposito and Smith, the championship game was the ultimate curtain call.
“This team means so much to me,” said Smith, who played third base. “There is no other way I’d like to go out.”
Esposito, who played second base, added “This championship means so much to not just the seniors, but the entire softball program. We worked so hard for this.”
Many former Panthers softball players were in attendance to watch the program make history and when Morello was addressing his team following the win he reminded them that this championship was not only a reflection of this season, but also a tribute to the previous players that set the foundation.
Morello, who just wrapped up his ninth season with the program, added, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin