And it all begins on Monday, the roads to the FCIAC baseball and softball titles.
What makes this year so special? Never have the playoffs started before with so many teams in each sport having realistic shots at winning the FCIAC title.
If you are the Greenwich baseball team, and worked so hard to earn the No. 1 seed in a parity-filled league, how do you feel about having to open the tournament against Staples, which could easily go all the way? Fairfield Ludlowe, one of the hottest teams, is just a No. 6 seed. New Canaan, perhaps a slight preseason favorite, is playing out of the No. 4 hole.
Over in softball, St. Joseph emerged from a balanced pack to claim the top seed. The reward? A first-round meeting against a Danbury team that handed the Cadets one of their two conference losses. Westhill, Stamford and Darien finished just a game behind. Just two games separated the No. 2 through 7 seeds.
Greenwich in baseball and St. Joseph in softball are the favorites; I think St. Joseph has the better chance of going all the way. The bottom line is the teams that win championships will have earned them.
We ran our playoff previews in the Advocate over the weekend. If you missed them, colleague Scott Ericson handled the baseball here. I wrote our softball preview here.
Since my focus was on softball this spring, here are some random thoughts on each of the eight finalists, in order of the seedings.
1. St. Joseph (17-3). There are many givens here. Depending on how you want to rank them, catcher Jenn Vazquez is one of the three best players in the league, excellent with the bat and equally outstanding defensively. Pitchers Tori Ceballos and Nicole Williams give the Cadets an embarrassment of riches in a down year at the position. There are no weaknesses in any one area.
It is hard to say that the No. 4 hitter in the batting order is underrated, but first baseman Kristen Chacho is a solid run producer and terrific leader.
2. Westhill (16-4). You can have an honest debate whether the Vikings or Cadets have the best offense, 1-9 in the order. The Vikings get solid production throughout the lineup, and are solid defensively. I will admit: the team has exceeded my expectations, because so many players really stepped up their games with the bats from a year ago.
And like St. Joseph, I am going to look to the Vikings’ No. 4 hitter as their most underrated player — maybe the most unsung in the FCIAC. Kate Brainard doesn’t get the same attention as some of the other top hitters, but she has both deceptive power and a penchant for coming through in the clutch. She will soon be joining former teammates Julianne Vincent and Allison Macari at Ithaca.
3. Stamford (16-4). Here’s one of the few times I write about the Black Knights and don’t mention Krista Robustelli (oops). Gretta Buckley is another of the overlooked great hitters in the league. Claire Kaptinski is the prototypical No. 2 hitter.
Two keys for the Black Knights: strong defense, an area they have improved on greatly from a year ago, and continued strong play from two players that really are unsung: catcher Colleen Adams and third baseman Haley Lamotta.
4. Darien (16-4). Hard to overstate how important pitcher Erika Osherow is to the Blue Wave’s success. The team gets good production from the top part of the order, but what really is going to be important is defense. It cannot afford to give opponents extra outs.
5. Greenwich (15-5). The Cardinals are the only team in the field I have not seen all year. Everyone points to their offense, and rightfully so. What might give the team an edge is it has been in three pitchers’ duels in the past five games and won two of them.
6. New Canaan (14-6). The Rams have come on strong with one of the most veteran teams in the field. Many of the players have been together for the past three or four years, and that will be an edge. This is just a solid team all around, and the lower seed I give the best chance of going the farthest.
7. Fairfield Ludlowe (14-6). Which Falcons team will show up: the one that got off to the torrid start or the one that slumped at the end of the regular season? Is the past going to be prologue: Ludlowe, as the No. 8 seed, opened the tournament two years ago at top-seeded Westhill and came away with a 1-0 upset.
8. Danbury (14-6). The Hatters are still a dangerous team, but their chances took a big hit with the loss of two starters in the final week, including starting pitcher Kara Orr, who is out for the year with complications from a bout with mononucleosis that sidelined her at the start of the season.
Top of the order
1. GREENWICH (17-3): A great regular season by the Cardinals stamped them as the team to beat.
2. RIDGEFIELD (16-4): The Tigers were the biggest surprise of the regular season, considering the lack of preseason buzz.
3. NEW CANAAN (16-4): The Rams have a tough draw, but then again so does every team given parity. New Canaan has the pieces to navigate the maze.
1. ST. JOSEPH (17-3): I’m very curious to see how Jeff Babineau deploys his two pitchers in the postseason. Given the late notice on starts they are also given, so are Tori Ceballos and Nicole Williams.
2. WESTHILL (16-4): Those close to the program assured me in March the Vikings would still be strong, and I must admit I was skeptical, believing this was a team that would be a middle seed. You have made me believers.
3. STAMFORD (16-4): A Stamford-Westhill semifinal game? If it happens, it will bring back memories to the old days of Stamford city softball. Could the game get moved to Scalzi Park?