By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – What would the regular season be without a little Class LL softball state tournament preview between the squads from Bristol Eastern and Newington in Bristol on Thursday, May 18?
How about the winner also moving past the vanquished in the playoff standings and earning at least a share of the Central Connecticut Conference South Blue division title all in the same do-or-die event.
With so much riding on the line, it was the exact environment the Lancers’ program craved as Eastern came away with an impressive 3-0 victory over the Indians.
The Lancers, 16-2, wrapped up a huge victory and the icing on the cake was a share of the CCC South Blue championship, Redman’s first with the program as its head man.
Eastern only tallied up four hits against Newington but it was the squad’s use of small-ball that led to the home team scoring three critical runs to seize the contest.
And that included a huge squeeze bunt from Alyssa Hackling that gave the Lancers an important insurance run late.
“You know Monday [at Rocky Hill], we relied on the long ball with Mikayla [Martin]. We wouldn’t have won it without her,” said Eastern coach Scott Redman. “Today, we relied on the small-ball and Paige [McLaughlin] with a big two-out, RBI double early. And from there, Hackling made a suicide [squeeze]. She gets [the bunt] down, Jill [Maghini] comes hard and that was a great execution of the play that we’ve struggled on all year.”
Martin went 2-for-2 in the game while McLaughlin jammed that clutch two-base RBI hit in the second inning to put Eastern ahead in the contest for good.
Maghini had an RBI single to plate the game’s second run as the Lancers put together a quality offensive attack.
Defensively, Eastern made just one miscue in the field but Martin with at third base, Makenzie Jankowski in centerfield and the returning Jordan Fitzsimons at shortstop, it gave pitcher Erin Girard (six hits, five K’s, one walk, no runs) all the support she needed.
“Getting Fits back today, we’ve been without her for five games, getting her back, solidifying our defense” was important said Redman. “I think Erin was really comfortable with the team behind her. They played really good defense today. Without it, that’s a totally different game. We made a lot of plays. There weren’t a ton of strikeouts like Erin’s used to.”
Indians’ pitcher Kat Lagace hung in until the end, allowing those four hits, striking out nine but allowed six walks and gave up the three runs to earn the loss.
Newington was aggressive off the bat as Kacey Blais sent a single to right, Lagace added a base hit of her own and when Girard walked Rachel Thureson, the bases were loaded with just one out.
But Girard cut down Danielle Pantano on strikes and with a 2-2 count on Morgan Stegmaier, the pitcher earned another “K” as Eastern came away untouched as the game remained a 0-0 stalemate.
In the bottom of the frame, Fitzsimmons earned a full count walk and Martin squirted a single past shortstop to put two on.
A passed ball advanced the runners into scoring position but Nicole D’Amato popped out to second as the game moved into the second frame without any score.
Prachi Dave was hit by a pitch to open the second tilt and Newington threatened once again.
But three quick putouts got the Lancers off the field and quickly, Eastern was looking to strike first on the scoreboard.
And small-ball did it for the Lancers as Hackling put a ball into left for a base hit and on an 0-2 count, Girard’s one-out bunt moved pinch runner Lauren Aparo to second base.
From there, McLaughlin flipped an RBI double to left-centerfield as the huge hit allowed Eastern surge in front 1-0 through two completed frames.
Then Jankowski walked to open the third, swiped second base and got into scoring position for Martin.
Martin slammed a single to right as D’Amato was at the plate with runners on the corners.
But D’Amato’s fly-ball was caught and the throw to get a retreating Martin at first base was in time as the double-play ended the third with the Lancers still on top by a run.
After hitting Dave with a pitch to start the second tilt, Girard retired nine straight and then with two outs in the bottom of the fourth, the Eastern pitcher walked and the Lancers tried to pad their lead once again.
But pinch runner Emily Marquis was caught stealing second on a controversial putout call and Newington kept that deficit a one-run affair.
After shutting down eleven straight batters, the Indians’ Cyan Gonzales and Blais roped out back-to-back hits to centerfield for Newington but when Lagace smacked a comeback right at Girard for the third out, the threat was squashed as the Lancers carried that one-run edge into the bottom of the fifth stanza.
Eastern got into scoring position quickly in the fifth when McLaughlin earned a base-on-balls and quickly stole second with no one out.
Taylor Keegan then sent a grounder to short that was cleanly played and McLaughlin was baiting a throw back to second base.
But McLaughlin slipped, was tagged out and Newington escaped out of a potential jam.
Keegan made it to first on the fielder’s choice, stole second and was looking to score with only one out.
However, two strikeouts later, Newington survived the inning but even as the Indians put two runners in scoring position in the sixth, that tying run did not come to pass for the squad.
Thureson singled to right behind the bag at first, and a sacrifice bunt from Pantano sent the lead runner to second.
A grounder by Stegmaier was booted and quickly, the Indians had runners on the corners.
Off a short fly out to center, Jankowski made a rocket of a throw to McLaughlin behind the plate and the lead runner at third didn’t dare try to score on the play.
“Newington put the ball in play,” said Redman. “They made us field bunts; they made us field ground balls all day. Makenzie chasing balls down in the outfield [was crucial]. She made a [great] play there in the last inning. It just showed that our defense is solid and when we play well, we make teams earn it.”
And one grounder later, fielded nicely by Martin at third, the Lancers were looking for an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth with a 1-0 lead still in hand.
In fact, eventually two runs came to pass when Martin walked to open the inning and was pinch run for by Marquis.
She quickly stole second and with one out, Maghini sent a ball to right-center field – plating Marquis – as the Lancers ramped up a 2-0 edge.
“I think Newington did a great job adjusting,” said Redeye of Lagace on the mound. “When she was struggling with her command, we adjusted and were patient. When she came back and left [balls] over the plate, we attacked.
We may not have shot a gap or put it where we wanted to but the idea was correct, the approach was correct, and the girls did a great job up at the plate today.”
But the scoring continued when Maghini took two bases on a passed ball and when the squeeze bunt was perfectly executed by Hackling, the runner at third made it home safely and the cushion reached 3-0.
And as the sixth inning closed for Eastern, the Lancers were on top 3-0 and Newington was down to its final three outs.
Gonzales kept the contest alive with a one-out single but in the end, Newington stranded its ninth and final runner on base as the Lancers wrapped up an impressive 3-0 victory from King Street in Bristol and the Lancers earned a piece of the CCC South Blue Division title in the same process.
“I mean, we’ve had various goals all year,” said Redman. “In the beginning of the year, we didn’t quite know [what to expect]. We had four freshmen starting in the beginning of the year. We had a key injury at the beginning of the year with [Nicole] D’Amato hurt…seeing how good we could be, [then] our goals had changed.”
“Winning the CCC South Blue was definitely a goal; we got a share of that at the very least now. If we take care of business Monday [against Central] we check that off.”