FAIRFIELD – It would seem at first glance that the championship mission for the Darien High School softball team began back in March, when most FCIAC prognosticators were predicting that the Blue Wave would be a mediocre, middle-of-the-pack squad that would be content with merely making the postseason.
But actually, at least for one Blue Wave player, it all started three years earlier. That was when Darien coach Nick DeMaio handed the ball to a freshman pitcher named Sophia Barbour for mop-up duty during the team’s lopsided loss to St. Joseph in the FCIAC final.
“That,” Barbour said, “started the dream for me.”
The dream was to win an FCIAC championship, and three years later, after today’s 6-3 victory over Westhill, the dream became reality for Barbour and the Blue Wave.
“It was an honor and a privilege to go into that game three years ago,” Barbour said after limiting the heavy-hitting Vikings to five hits today. “It was important for me to get that experience. Now, to come here three years later and win it all, well, it’s just a dream come true.”
Barbour outdueled Westhill ace Edyliese Aquino as Darien captured its first FCIAC crown since winning back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012.
“Sophia has had her eye on this since her freshman year,” DeMaio said. “She got a taste of it then and wasn’t going to be denied.”
Barbour’s teammates certainly helped, especially in the second inning when the second seed Blue Wave (19-4) scored four times off Aquino. Nothing like a four-run, second-inning lead to get a pitcher into a comfort zone.
“It felt great to have that early padding,” said Barbour, who struck out five and walked five. “But against a great hitting team like Westhill, it’s never over. They never quit.”
In the top of the second Barbour led off with a walk against Aquino, and Kristen Picard and Rosali Pirone followed with ground ball singles to load the bases. Jessica Carlo then brought in three runs with a double down the rightfield line. Carlo would score on a groundout two batters later and the No. 1 seed Vikings (19-4) were in a four-run hole.
“Actually, my pitches were working in the second inning,” Aquino said. “But they just hit the ball. Give them credit.”
Aquino, who was banged up to say the least, allowed eight hits while striking out two and walking four. The senior has been playing with a sore groin for three weeks. She then rolled her ankle in Tuesday’s semifinal win over St. Joseph. She was then clipped in the thigh on a first-inning groundout.
“I’ve been playing through pain for a while,” Aquino said. “I feel a little beat up right now but a couple of days off will help.”
Aquino was not at her best, as the second inning showed.
“Their balls found the right spots in the second inning,” Westhill coach Tom Pia. “But in the other innings they hit the ball well. They hit the ball when they needed to.”
“The second inning, getting that 4-0 lead, was the key to the whole game,” DeMaio added.
After Gabby Laccona’s RBI double keyed Westhill’s two-run third inning rally that cut Darien’s lead to 4-2, the Blue Wave came back with two more in the top of the fifth. Barbour, who was named the tournament’s MVP, doubled in one run and Picard followed with an RBI single, making it 6-2.
“Taking a 4-0 lead was great but getting two more later on really made the difference,” DeMaio said. “Going into the last inning with a two-run lead instead of four against their top of the order would’ve been tough for us.”
DeMaio and Barbour were well aware of Westhill’s dangerous top of the order. Laccona and Kaira Ramon are two of the best hitters in the league and the Vikings’ No. 3 and 4 batters, Jordan Benzaken and Aquino, are difficult outs as well.
“Their 1-2 hitters are the best 1-2 hitters I have seen in this league,” DeMaio said. “There was a lot of pressure on Sophia in the seventh inning but it would’ve been harder with a two-run lead.”
Down four, the Vikings did what all Pia teams always do: not give up. Lisa Jean Felix was hit by a pitch and one out later Ramon walked for the third time. After the second out Benazaken singled to load the bases and Barbour, who was running out of gas, walked Maddie Cortell to force in a run. Up next was Olivia Butler, who along with Laccona, had two hits.
But Barbour induced Butler to swing at the first pitch and Butler popped up to second base to set off a blue and white celebration.
“Everybody was picking us to be mediocre this season,” DeMaio said. “We used that as motivation.”
Combine that with the mop-up appearance by Barbour in the FCIAC final three years ago, and you have a Darien FCIAC softball championship.