Updated: Jul 17
By Rick Menning
BRISTOL, CT -- Connecticut's representatives in the upcoming New England Region tournament left it all on the diamond in Saturday's thrilling Little League Softball Major Division state championship showdown at Rockwell Park.
Combining super hitting, stellar fielding and an outstanding effort on the bump, Milford's talented squad improved its undefeated All-Star record to 7-0 with a 9-4 victory over Wallingford.
Having been awarded their state banner and medals after the decisive win, the Milford girls can now focus their attention on the prestigious regional play July 23-28 at the A. Bartlett Giamatti Little League Leadership Training Center, also in Bristol.
When Milford goes up against Tiverton, Rhode Island in its opening contest next Saturday at 4 p.m., their performance will -- as with every regional game -- be viewed by a national television audience on ESPN+.
Tiverton, which made history as the first team from that community to capture a Little League championship, cruised past South Kingstown 13-1 this past Wednesday.
Manager Mike Bonanno has seen the determination and drive to be successful since the first day of practice, and the Milford girls never wavered from that commitment.
"They have a desire to win like no team I've ever seen, and I'm so proud of how hard they fought today against a great Wallingford team," Bonanno said.
Along with their 10-hit outburst in Saturday's title-clincher, Milford also flashed the leather with one brilliant defensive play after another while displaying virtually error-free softball since districts.
"We pitched well, played great defense and had timely hitting which made (today) so great," Bonanno continued. "But this team has been doing that since day one."
The victory centered around the complete-game performance of pitcher Sophia Horvack, who at one point recorded 11 straight outs against Wallingford. Horvack kept her composure after allowing two runs on four hits over the first two innings and settled in with a very commendable effort.
She held Wallingford hitless over the third, fourth and fifth innings.
"I just wanted to (concentrate) on throwing strikes," said Horvack, who effectively combined her fast ball with a curve and also an inside 'wipeout' pitch against some of the tougher Wallingford batters. "My focus was just to try to get the pitches (in the zone) and try not to let them hit it."
Horvack's great six-innings of work was bolstered by sensational hitting, with the exclamation point being Lily Stankevich's inside-the park grand slam to the fence in right field in the fourth inning.
Stankevich's blast, which was part of a six-RBI outing, turned a close 4-2 contest into an 8-2 lead.
Leadoff batter Gabby Rodriguez, who also made a huge impact with three hits including an RBI double to left field during a three-run second inning, was on last year's Milford team that just missed advancing. She is thrilled that the squad is back in a strong position this tournament season.
"I'm really excited. There is such a great bond on this team," said Rodriguez, a returning player along with Maddie Deldin. "We're really close as a group and our hitting and fielding is really good."
Like the rest of her teammates, Rodriguez knows the road to the Little League Softball World Series in North Carolina will not be easy.
"There are going to be some really good teams and we just have to come out fighting," she continued. "We have to go on the attack right from the beginning (of regionals)."
Deldin, who completed numerous putouts in Saturday's game with her great glovework at first base, noted that the camaraderie on the team is strong and that all the girls form a very cohesive unit both on and off the field.
"This team is so good and I just love them so much," Deldin said. "We practice so hard and so (many days) and then when we (take the field) we bring all that together."
Third baseman Julia Scibek led off the second inning by ripping a double to right field, and Horvack also contributed an RBI double in the fifth inning to round out the run production for Milford.
Catcher Ariella DiOrio was not surprised by Horvack's ability to bounce back after giving up a run in each of the first two innings.
"She just cleared her mind and got into a groove," DiOrio said. "Even when she gives up a hit or two, she stays focused and we know that with our defense we can get out of the inning."
Onward and upward
Milford will join Tiverton and the state champions from Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont in the New England grouping from which will emerge the team that will advance to the 2022 Little League Softball® World Series at Stallings Stadium in Greenville, North Carolina.
"We haven't talked about what (a trip to the World Series) would mean for Milford and our program because we wanted to focus (on getting to regionals). Now we can have that conversation," Mike Bonanno said.