WEST HAVEN – Timing is everything in sports.
Tonight in the state Class LL semifinals, the Trumbull High School softball team got the timely hits, and Eagles coach Jacqui Sheftz finished it off by making a perfectly timed strategical move.
It all added up to a 6-5 victory for Trumbull over Cheshire as the Eagles advanced and earned the right to defend their title.
“That’s who we are,” Sheftz said after the thrilling triumph at West Haven High School. “We know how to bounce back. We always maintain our composure.”
Indeed. Trumbull (24-2), the No. 2 seed, bounced back from a surprising loss to St. Joseph in the FCIAC final, then survived two earlier state playoff games, winning by a total of just three runs. The Eagles fell behind 2-0 in the first inning tonight and, after taking the lead, fell behind again in the fourth inning, only to rally to take the lead for good.
And if that’s not enough, all this postseason magic has happened with ace pitcher Emily Gell nursing a stress fracture in her ankle.
Trumbull, which will play Amity in the final either Friday or Saturday, scored four runs in the bottom of the first after falling behind 2-0, all with two outs. Delilha DeStefano, Courtney Fairfield, Cassi Barbato and Ava Dunn had the timely two-out hits.
Then, after No. 3 seed Cheshire (21-3) had grabbed a 5-4 lead in the top of the fourth, the Eagles bounced back again. Two more runs were produced with two outs. Meghan Geraghty and Maggie Coffin collecting the clutch hits. Coffin’s two-run triple over the centerfielder gave Trumbull the lead for good.
“It was nerve-wracking but it was a total team effort today,” Coffin said. “The key was we all felt very confident up there.”
“Maggie did her job,” Sheftz added. “She really came through in the clutch.”
So did the starting pitcher, freshman Mackenzie Bruggeman, and so did Gell . . . and the coach.
Bruggeman gutted it out, allowing five earned runs on nine hits through five innings, before allowing a one-out walk in the top of the sixth with Trumbull ahead 6-5. All game long Sheftz had to be ready to call on Gell, but it couldn’t be too soon or too late. It had to be just the right time. And this was it.
“I coached from my gut,” Sheftz said. “I had to figure, ‘What can Kenzie give us,’ while also knowing (that Gell was not 100 percent). Emily was not on a set (pitch count), so it was more a matter of when I felt the time was right.”
Gell, who worked in relief in the Eagles’ two earlier Class LL games, struck out the first batter she faced before issuing a walk. She then got the third out on a liner to center.
In the top of the seventh it got a little interesting when Cheshire’s Mia Juodiatis (three hits) and Brianna Floyd (two hits) each singled with two outs. But unlike Gell’s teammates, the Rams could not get the timely, two-out hit as Gell struck out Ariana Perlini, the Rams’ most dangerous hitter.
“I was ready,” Gell said about warming up in the bullpen several times during the game. “I knew my teammates were 100 percent supportive of me when I came in and that helped calm me down.”
“Both pitchers showed a lot of guts,” Sheftz added. “Mackenzie was not rattled one bit. Then Emily came in and showed a lot of confidence.”
The two teams combined for 22 baserunners in the first four innings (31 in all). After Cheshire took a 2-0 lead in the top of the first off Bruggeman, with Sara Mulligan’s double being the key hit, the Eagles rallied for four runs of their own with two outs in the bottom half of the inning.
DeStefano singled in one run before Dunn’s double scored two more. The Eagles then executed a perfect first-and-third double steal, with Cassi Barbato scoring to make it 4-2.
Bruggeman settled down the next two innings but the Rams were able to take the lead in the top of the fourth. Juodiatis, Perlini and Alexis Hemstock had the RBIs.
The lead, however, was short-lived as the Eagles rallied for two runs to take the lead in the home fourth, once again with two outs.
Barbato led off with a single and moved to second on Dunn’s bunt single. The rally appeared to be short-circuited when Bruggemann’s liner to short turned into a double play as Dunn was caught off first. But Geraghty was safe on an infield single. Coffin then came through with her big hit.
After Bruggeman’s one-out walk to Mulligan in the top of the sixth, it was time for Sheftz to make the move to the bullpen and, like seemingly everything else tonight for the Eagles, it was timed perfectly.
Dunn led Trumbull with three hits while Barbato had two.
Cheshire pitcher Natalie Amato allowed 11 hits, while striking out three and walking one. Emma Watkinson added three hits for the Rams, who won the Class LL title in 2016.