STAMFORD — Tony Esposito is not going to like this column. He is not going to like it because he is going to share top billing with his Stamford High School softball players, who sent themselves out on a mission and tomorrow afternoon will be playing in the FCIAC championship for the first time since 2006.
That’s right, it has been nine years since the Black Knights played for the title. They defeated Trumbull that year, ending a decade in which they were the league’s most decorated team, with four wins in five trips to the final.
Esposito doesn’t want his name on the marquee because in his world, “it is all about the kids.” Espo, as he is known to all, is both superstitious — a request has already been put in for coverage tomorrow by my summer intern, who covered quarterfinal and semifinal wins — and disdains publicity. He will try and avoid interviews, and will cut them off on the few occasions the recorder on your iPhone hits three minutes.
“You know what to say,” Esposito will say as parting words to a reporter before suddenly you see his back walking away.
Yes, Tony, in this case I do know what to say. Which is why, knowing you as I do, my advice is if you have made it this far to read no further. You won’t like the spotlight, but in this case you have commanded it.
Never in all of his years has there been a better marriage between coach and team than Esposito and the current Black Knights. He has won with Nikki Vitti throwing bullets from the mound or with Melissa Giordano, now his assistant, driving balls into the gaps.
At his very essence, though, Esposito is a teacher, and he may never have had a bunch of both talented and willing young students than he does now. Four sophomores have started regularly. Occasionally a freshman. They are really, really good players, which means this trip to the final may not be a one-stop.
Still, Esposito has expedited their development because that is what he does. Never before has he had the type of personnel that best suits his strengths as a coach.
“He’s been amazing this year,” said Nikki Pease, who had a key hit in Tuesday’s 4-2 semifinal win in eight innings over Darien and is another in a long line of outstanding captains Esposito has been blessed with. “We don’t have a Krista Robustelli, that one superstar on the team who can always give you the big hit. Us four seniors have had to step up and be there for the younger girls and he’s helped bring out that leadership. And for the younger girls on the team, he has drilled into them what our program is about.”
If you know how to read Esposito’s tells, then you know how much he loves this team.
“They’re just playing ball right now,” Esposito said. “Nothing fancy. We’re kind of riding a wave right now, the kids are hitting the ball, Sara is pitching well. It’s everybody. Every game it’s something different.”
Sophomore Sara Staley took the ball on opening day and has never given it back. Pease and Maria Zecena had the big hits against Darien on Tuesday. Maddie Santora, Tori Cuscuna and Lauren O’Neill homered in the same inning of a quarterfinal win against Norwalk. Brianna Arias is leading Stamford in hitting. On another night it has been Haley LaMotta. Go around the lineup and every player has had a key role in several wins.
“It’s all the girls working together,” Esposito said. “The kids always know if they don’t bring it they can get beat by anybody, but if they do bring it they can beat anybody. They are in one of those grooves and I hope it continues.”
Pease said the players were motivated back in preseason by what they felt was a perception they were a good but unexceptional team.
“It has always been the same, being No. 1 was not going to be easy,” Pease said. “We started to figure it out around the middle of the season. Whether we win, lose or draw and go to extra innings, we were going to leave it all out there.”
Now comes the ultimate challenge: St. Joseph, the No. 1 seed, undefeated and defending champion in the final.
St. Joseph won the first meeting, 10-3, on April 22, one of 15 games it has scored in double figures.
“We will give it our best effort,” Esposito said. “We will walk away a winner or a loser, but with our heads high.”
And if you press him, my bet is Esposito will say this has ranked with the most enjoyable seasons he has ever had coaching, a perfect fit of gifted professor and eager students.
And if I had the chance earlier, I might have come right out and asked him. But my three minutes were up.