Softball

Commentary: For Trumbull Softball Team, First State Title Is An End — And Hopefully A Beginning

Trumbull pitcher Ally Szabo throws out a batter during last week’s Class LL semifinal. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

The high point of the season evolved from the lowest for the Trumbull softball team, a humbling 11-0 home loss to town rival St. Joseph in the first round of the FCIAC Tournament.

“I think the team that lost to St. Joe’s, we were determined, but I think that because we beat them once we had too much confidence,” Eagles shortstop Taylor Brown recalled. “St. Joe’s played an awesome game and they showed us they came to win and how they beat us at our field. But after that I think we were really like, if we didn’t win the FCIAC championship lets win the states.”

Mission accomplished. Brown was speaking less than 48 hours after Trumbull won its first state championship in the sport following a 4-3 win over Southington in the Class LL final on Saturday night. This is the story of how a team coalesced in just 12 days, and in the process redefined where the program is headed.

Foran winning the Class L baseball title as the 32nd seed was the biggest headline-maker of championship weekend, but the Eagles, though overshadowed by the FCIAC’s four other winners on the day, was their league’s most compelling story.

“It still hasn’t sunk it yet,” said Trumbull pitcher Ally Szabo, still genuinely in a surrealistic state. “Today at school a lot of the kids said congratulations and so did the teachers, and it was really neat.”

All involved agreed there were both starting and turning points to destiny, first with that quarterfinal game against the Cadets.

“That loss to St. Joe’s was one of the best things that could have happened to us,” Trumbull coach Jacqui Sheftz said. “It really forced them to take a step back and focus on the goals of the program and which direction are we headed in. Our goals every year are to win the FCIAC championship and the state championship. It really made the girls more hungry. That was embarrassing. It was our home field.”

Trumbull made it through the first two rounds that offered no foreshadowing of what was to come. That occurred during a four-day stretch before a quarterfinal game against top-seeded Norwich Free Academy. It was supposed to be played on a Thursday, which was also the day of the school’s senior class trip to an amusement park. After a long bus ride upstate, a rainstorm brought them back home.

No trip. No game.

Because each school had proms on Friday and Saturday, the Eagles had to get back on a bus Sunday morning. In a game that went back and forth, Trumbull emerged with a 9-5 win. They also took away something more than just a chance to extend their season.

“That’s a testament to how dedicated the seniors were to the program and trusting what our goals were,” said Sheftz, in her second season at Trumbull after winning three state titles at Masuk. “That just lit a fire under them. They kind of laid down the foundation for how this program will be run for years to come. This is the commitment that you need to have to be a championship team. That weekend they led by example and I’m so proud how they handled it. That weekend means a lot to a senior. And the underclassmen. It was just a whole buy-in all around.”

Brown said it was perhaps the most pivotal moment of the run.

Trumbull shortstop Taylor Brown throws makes a play during a semifinal win over Stamford. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

“When we were at NFA it made us mad,” Brown said. “We missed our class trip. After we beat NFA we said we don’t care about anything else. If we beat NFA we can beat anyone now.”

The final two wins did not come easily. First there was a tense 3-0 semifinal victory over Stamford, a pitchers’ duel between Szabo and the Black Knights’ Sara Staley. Trumbull needed seventh-inning home runs from Lea Thompson and Delilha DeStefano to break a scoreless tie.

Few gave the Eagles a chance Saturday against Southington, which was trying for its fourth title in five years. Trailing, 1-0, Erica Fluskey hit a two-run single and Brown a home run to put Trumbull up, 3-1. A two-run bloop single by Southington’s Katie Semmel tied the game in the sixth.

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Szabo was pitching for a championship, but also knowing in the back of her mind this was the final game of her career — she will be attending Pace to study graphic design.

“I kept telling myself this is your last game, you can’t go out like this,” Szabo recalled when Trumbull fell behind early. “I was stressing when I walked two batters in a row and I was getting antsy kind of, but I took a deep breath and said you have to finish strong. Pitch and don’t think.”

Sheftz, in a prescient decision, had moved Szabo from sixth to fifth in the batting order for the game.

In the top of the seventh, Szabo’s one-out hit delivered Trumbull the go-ahead run.

“I just knew I had to hit it,” Szabo said. “I didn’t know where it went.”

Added Sheftz, “I coach from the gut. I just had a feeling and moved Ally up a spot.”

With two outs and two on in the seventh, a foul ball sent Brown into a collision with a photographer. Brown, who had two hits and reached base four times in the game, thought she had a shot at one last shining play.

“I definitely think I could have,” Brown said when asked if she would have been able to make a play. “When it went up I just went for it, I didn’t care about the fence. I just kind of zoned everything out. What scared me afterward was there were two outs and if she gets a hit and they tied the game. I was just worried what would come after because if I caught it that would have been the game.”

It didn’t matter. Szabo closed it out with a final strikeout, capping off an MVP performance.

“It just feels like a blur,” Szabo said. “Right when it happened, it just didn’t feel like it happened.”

The Eagles’ win was undoubtedly a combined effort, but pitcher is one of the most pivotal positions in any team sport. You don’t win without a good one, and Szabo, like her teammates, picked an opportune time to deliver her most commanding efforts.

“Ally Szabo, she saves her best for last,” Sheftz said. “She was absolutely brilliant on the mound these last few games of the season. A lot of people questioned why I left Ally on the mound for the FCIAC loss. Honestly, it was for this moment right here, for her to build what she needed to bounce back and be at her best in the championship game.”

Brown will move on to play basketball and perhaps softball at Montclair State, and the other seniors will go their separate ways. But over a dozen players return, tasked with making what happened Saturday a lasting building block, a beginning and not an end.

“For the senior class, they’ve had two coaches in four years,” Sheftz said. “Two years ago to ask them to trust what my coaching staff brings to the table and trust the process, and for them to be able to put that all together in a short period of time is amazing and tremendous on their part. They bought into that and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”