The storyline to the FCIAC Softball Tournament was altered at about 7 p.m. Monday night, after St. Joseph erupted for six 7th-inning runs and a 10-6 win at Westhill.
It ended the Vikings’ 54-game regular-season league unbeaten streak. For a young Cadets team, it was another step in the growth process and further validation they are a legitimate title contender.
And though the Westhill players probably don’t realize it right now, the belief here is the loss enhances their chances of winning their first conference title since 2009 and third in five years.
We will start with the Vikings. Despite their 12-1 start — the lone loss was a non-league game with Masuk — they have been prone to mental errors this spring, especially on the basepaths. They were plagued by them again on Monday.
The difference was in their previous games, the Vikings were able to tap their superior personnel to overcome their mistakes. Not on Monday.
The Vikings are hardly an arrogant team, but it is not unreasonable to believe there might have been the mindset they could always find a way to win no matter how soundly they played. That changed against the Cadets.
“I absolutely think this loss can help,” Westhill pitcher Allison Macari said. “It’s almost like we forgot how to lose. I don’t think we are cocky, but there are errors and mistakes we make that we have to fix so we don’t make them again.”
The loss, if channeled correctly, was a lesson without punishment. If Westhill wins out, it will still be the No. 1 seed in the FCIAC Tournament. The storyline before Monday might have been one of everyone chasing the Vikings. But the gap between the team and the other top contenders is a small one — you could see a scenario where each of the current top six leagues could win the championship.
So now some of the pressure that would have followed the Vikings like a shadow into the postseason has been removed. And there is too much talent and good senior leadership on the team to believe that Monday’s loss is going to grow into a larger problem with the postseason looming.
Meanwhile, the Cadets are the league’s hottest team, riding an eight-game winning streak after a 2-3 start. The final out of Monday’s game kicked off a celebration more like a postseason than regular-season win.
“In the time they have been here the kids haven’t beaten Westhill,” St. Joseph coach Jeff Babineau said. “It was almost a David vs. Goliath team. There has been a big transformation since the first five games.”
The Cadets started the season losing their speedy leadoff hitter and catalyst, Breana Shepard, when her shoulder popped out playing centerfield during the third batter of the season. She missed the next five games. Babineau was forced to integrate a team led by third baseman Taryn Figmic and catcher Jenn Vazquez with players barely out of braces.
Babineau started four freshmen — two in the outfield, and two at the middle infield spots — against Westhill. His pitcher, Tori Ceballos, is just a sophomore.
“We had seven or eight scrimmages and played really good teams,” Babineau said. “Then the first few games were like ‘Holy Cow, stage fright.’ Now Tori realizes what she can do and that she has a good team behind her. She was trying to do too much.”
St. Joseph’s win was a product of the old and the new. Freshman Jenna Carrano, starting in centerfield while Shepard, who is currently at first base, continues her recovery, made a spectacular running catch, while Figmic, the lone senior starter, had a three-run double during the decisive seventh inning.
If the Cadets were a stock, you would want to load up on them for the future. They could be the league power for the next 2-3 years.
But given their play the past three weeks, loading up on them for the short term would be an equally wise strategy.
Knights of the head table
Talking of comparing league softball teams to stocks — we do get a little crazy here sometimes — if you want to make a speculative play, keep an eye on the Stamford softball team, which is riding a four-game winning streak and right now would be the sixth seed in the playoffs.
The Black Knights don’t have the dominant pitching to shut opponents down, but they certainly have the offense to outscore them. A case in point was Monday’s 10-9 win in 10 innings over Norwalk.
Stamford has scored 30 runs during their streak. Krista Robustelli would be one of the frontrunners for a league MVP award, but players like Tori Hynd, Courtney Kuczo and Gretta Buckley are the nucleus of one of the FCIAC’s most potent lineups.
Stamford has to play Darien and St. Joseph the next two games, so coach Tony Esposito will get a good read where his team stands. But the Black Knights are a team no coach will want to face in the playoffs.
Top of the order
1. GREENWICH (15-0): The Cardinals are 75 percent of the way through — given the strength of the league this year — one of the great regular seasons in FCIAC history.
2. STAPLES (13-2): And the Wreckers would love to be the team to derail Greenwich’s run in Friday’s highly anticipated game.
3. ST. JOSEPH (10-2): The Cadets are not-so-quietly looming, positioning themselves for league and state title runs.
1. WESTHILL (13-2): Westhill or Darien? Darien or Westhill? We will keep the Vikings, by virtue of their one-run win over the Blue Wave, in the top spot.
2. DARIEN (13-2): A LOT of people have said in recent days if forced to put money on a team to win the league title, their chips would be on Darien.
3. ST. JOSEPH (10-3): I really like Babineau a lot. He is also one heck of a coach. And has good clay right now to mold.
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