Softball makes statement by getting to states
Young and dangerous are these Rams.
The New Canaan girls softball team is getting the luxury and privilege of playing in a postseason game for the first time in eight years. By the time the state playoff game comes (pairings will be announced Friday and play begins next week) the girls will have sat more than a week -- the longest break of its season -- for it.
It will be worth the wait.
"I think it might end up benefiting us," junior co-captain Tory Rusch said. "Throughout the season we've been playing game after game after game, especially with the rain-outs. Having this week off is going to help us because in practice we can focus on our weaknesses and work out the kinks."
The team is playing Norwalk in a scrimmage Friday to keep the edges sharp.
I watched New Canaan Monday as it easily took care of winless Bassick, 12-0, and what stood out most to me was how Rusch handled the team in a game that was, basically, meaningless. The Rams were going to win, had already locked up a spot in states, so a W only meant a minor boost in seeding -- or may not affect where the team is slotted at all.
Regardless of that, after the Rams nearly allowed Bassick to -- gasp! -- score a run, Rusch immediately called a 20-second dugout meeting once the third out was made. She has been a vital, vocal leader for this young team.
"She's vocal in a good way," head coach Larry Tomaselli said. "She's out there shouting orders in an instructional type of way, but also in a positive way. She doesn't act like a coach, she acts like a captain. And she backs up what she talks about."
Rusch, who plays first base, has what is believed to be one of the highest batting averages in the state, hovering around .550 after Monday's game.
After Rusch's words of encouragement, as the Rams took to the plate in their side of the frame, they tacked on another four runs to kick-start the rout.
The pep talk from Rusch had overtones to it, however mild they might have been. For as proud as this team is to end the eight-year playoff drought, it wasn't happy with its playing circumstances Monday.
"There are definitely a number of games that we should've won," Rusch said. "Right now, Stamford is playing Westhill, and we should've beat Stamford. I think what happened was our focus wasn't there. Because we have a really talented team, it was just about getting our mental focus there from the start of the game and carrying it on."
The team missed out by two games in qualifying for the eight-team FCIAC playoffs. Westhill, the overwhelming favorite to win the league, defeated Stamford 8-0. It's unlikely New Canaan would have defeated Westhill, but it wanted the chance to surprise the Vikings, as it did when it defeated other playoff residents St. Joseph and Fairfield Ludlowe earlier this season. There are more lessons to be learned from a first-round exit in the FCIAC than a 12-run blowout against the league's worst team.
However, for a team started that 3-9 and lost a couple of tough games early, Tomaselli said this young squad was able to make a charge at the postseason because of its unexpected win on May 6.
"I think the St. Joe's game was a turning point," Tomaselli said. "If we had found a way earlier in the year to win the Stamford game or the Greenwich game, I think we would've been playing at Westhill today (in the quarterfinals of the FCIAC)."
The team, which is loaded with freshmen and sophomores, dropped a couple of games because of some fielding issues in early innings. It's why it fell to Ridgefield, 4-2. Tomaselli said the early-season bumps in the road were due to inexperience.
"They're moving to a different level, and a lot of people don't understand that it's different playing at a 14-year-old level, and then coming in and playing against 17-year-old girls," he said. "And it took a little time, but they adapted fast -- a lot faster than I thought they would."
It's interesting, to me, to see how close this team keeps those losses, because it's such a loose group.
"Our experience of losing those close games or losing to those teams that we should've beat will carry on into next season," Rusch said. "Next year we will learn that we should win those games. ... As for states, the younger girls now know what they need to do and what to expect."
Third baseman Brianna Valente said the goal wasn't always specifically on states.
"Our original goal was to win the game we were playing," Valente said. "Now that we have made it this far, everyone is needing to prepare for this."
They'll have a chance to surprise someone in states because of the pitching threat of freshman Cydney Ventura. The young one has very developed pitching motion for a freshman, and she'll be Tomaselli's starting choice for every game, though Emily Ely, who pitched the majority of the Bassick game, is also in the mix.
"She's another good vocal leader on the team," Tomaselli said of Ely. "She steps in when we need her to pitch, and she's just a consummate team player. But we have to play solid defense. Cydney has grown into a strong pitcher, especially for a freshman. She's got a lot of moxie on the mound; they've got to make the plays behind her. The bottom line is, she's around the plate, so the ball's going to be put in play, which is what we want, they've got to make the plays on defense."
Tomaselli's team will scratch out four or five runs (it averages 5.9 per game), but he believes the infield defense will be the key to getting a win or two.
"This game is 80 percent defense and pitching and 20 percent hitting. It's all about the defense," Tomaselli said.
Rusch and Valente, two leaders, are throwing the young players into the fire now. Since there are no seniors to lose on this team, judgments will be made next week on who cares about getting this program into the FCIACs next season.
"It'll show us who's dedicated and will make the changes to win games," Rusch said.
"Now we'll start to see who's really committed to it," Valente added.
Tomaselli wanted a .500 season at the start of the year. If he's to get that, the Rams will have to do something highly unlikely: win states -- exceeding expectations while meeting them at the same time.
But this team has already proven it can beat quality opponents. It's doubled its win total from last year. Next year, double-digit wins are expected. The group is one of the up-and-coming dangerous teams in the conference. It may never be a power, but the next five years present an opportunity for New Canaan softball to steal the spotlight.