The inaugural varsity season of Waterbury Career Academy softball came to an end on Wednesday afternoon at Huntingdon Field, right next to Route 8 in Waterbury.
The seventh-seeded Spartans trailed No. 10 Stafford 10-1 after three innings in their Class S second round matchup, yet never gave up. WCA cut the deficit to 10-9 and had the tying run on first base, only to have the game end in a double play. The Spartans finished their first varsity campaign with a sterling 17-5 record.
I asked head coach John O'Toole how he would have responded had he been told his team would be 17-5 and win a state tournament game.
"I probably would have thought they were a little crazy," O'Toole responded. "As a JV last year, I told the girls Day 1 we were working towards qualifying for the state tourney, but no way could I dream being a 7 seed and then winning a game."
How the heck did it happen? Chemistry, and lots of it.
"They all played together in JV besides the freshman," O'Toole said. "They played summer ball together. They lifted in the offseason, and most importantly, they genuinely love each other."
When you care about one another, you're willing to go above and beyond to compete for your teammate. These girls chose their captains, and they quickly chose Gabie Rocco and Vanessa Santiago.
"They are my two junior leaders," O'Toole said. "I coached them as freshmen at Crosby. When I got hired at WCA they were the reason I agreed to leave the varsity job at Crosby to start the JV program at WCA."
O'Toole teaches social studies at the school.
Both Rocco and Santiago were solid for the Spartans, to say the least.
"Gabie is my catcher and 4 batter," O'Toole said. "She hits for power and has a rocket arm."
About Santiago: "Vee is by far my most consistent hitter and one of the smartest softball players I have coached. She's not fast but wreaks havoc on the basepaths because of her decision making. Plus, playing third and short this year, she made two errors."
Combine those two with steady sophomore pitcher Taylor Wagner, and you have a recipe for success.
"She is not overpowering, but she throws strikes, average four Ks a game and only three walks a game," O'Toole said. "She never rattles and has given us the ability to compete in every game."
O'Toole said the favorite game memory was a walk-off win over Kennedy. There was something more for O'Toole, though.
"That walk-off win this year against Kennedy was a big one, but I think more so bonding experiences like stopping at McDonald's as a team, just laughing and having fun," O'Toole said. "To me, for some of these girls this is the best family they have, so teaching them life lessons and having fun are the things that will last."
O'Toole added: "Winning is nice, but it's the other stuff that makes it awesome."
Awesome is the perfect way to describe WCA's first varsity season, both on and off the field it sounds like.
Here's the full CIAC tournament roster from the historic first varsity season:
#1 - Hennessey Vasquez, sophomore
#2 - Megan Romaniello, sophomore
#3 - Shyra Fisher, sophomore
#4 - Brianna Medina, sophomore
#5 - Katiana Batista, sophomore
#7 - Arianna Torres, sophomore
#8 - Vanessa Santiago, junior
#9 - Taylor Wagner, sophomore
#11 - Shynia Moore, sophomore
#12 - Marseda Halilaj, sophomore
#13 - Leila Lazaro, freshman
#16 - Micahlyn Vaichus, sophomore
#17 - Tabatha Palomba, freshman
#20 - Gabie Rocco, junior
#24 - Alijah Gonzalez, freshman
#29 - Hannah Landry, junior
Next year, WCA softball will play a full NVL schedule. O'Toole said the girls are looking forward to it. For now, they can savor being part of a great first season.