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Montville - Always before, Joe Cawley's role at the Eastern Connecticut Conference tournament has been to join a receiving line of coaches which shakes hands with the leagues all-stars. Then he's gotten in his truck and driven home.
This week, Cawley, the coach of the Wheeler High School softball team, will bring his entire team to its first ECC tournament.
And after a 6-3 victory over St. Bernard on Monday in which the Lions made all the right plays in the final two innings, overcoming a 3-2 deficit with three outs to go to clinch the ECC Small Division outright, Cawley can't help but believe his team belongs there.
It's the first ECC title in program history for the Lions (14-3, 10-0).
"Our first goal is always to get eight wins and find a way into the state tournament," Cawley said. "After our first time through the league this year, we added a few goals and one of those was this, to win it outright. 'We can beat them all.'"
"Wheeler played well. They deserved that game," said St. Bernard coach Brittany Connors, whose team, the defending Small Division champion, needed a win over the Lions to force a tie for the title. "They played better than us."
Wheeler found itself in trouble in the sixth inning when St. Bernard's Amy Bouchard smacked a two-run triple to right field to give the Saints (13-7, 8-2) a 3-2 lead with time then growing short for the Lions.
Bouchard, St. Bernard's pitcher, retired the first Wheeler batter of the seventh on a ground ball to first base, but then had to go through leadoff hitter Raven Houck, who was 3-for-3 to that point with two singles, a double and an RBI.
"She hits everything," Cawley said of Houck, his catcher.
Houck delivered, lining a ball into the right-center field gap for a game-tying home run.
In the bottom of the seventh, St. Bernard got the winning run to second base when Ali Patterson walked and was sacrificed to second. With two outs, Cawley elected to walk Gretchen Greene, the No. 3 hitter, who he said had beaten the Lions in the past. Greene, however, swung at an offering from Wheeler pitcher Jenn Paride which got a little too close to the plate and lined out, ending the inning.
Wheeler scored three in the eighth for the win, getting two hits, including an RBI single by Madison Porter, and taking advantage of two St. Bernard errors to tag Bouchard with three unearned runs (she gave up four unearned overall).
Paride, who transferred to Wheeler this year from Stonington and replaced all-star pitcher Summer Cipriani, struck out 12 and walked one, scattering six hits.
Paride allowed a home run to Patterson in the third inning to pull the score within 2-1, but struck out the final two batters in the inning. After Bouchard's triple in the sixth, Paride also responded with a strikeout.
"Jenn's a really good pitcher; she can pitch through anything," said Houck, who said Paride struggled through a bout with the flu for most of last week. "… It's cool I caught for Jenn when we were 10 years old for travel ball. We were very lucky to have her this year.
"This was a team effort. I was 4-for-5 but we scored three in the eighth and that had nothing to do with me, so credit the whole team."
Wheeler took the lead in the first inning when courtesy runner Emma Stock scored on an error. The Lions then tacked on a run in the second on an RBI single by Houck after Cawley called for a sacrifice bunt to push baserunner Kylie Garcia into scoring position with his best hitter coming to the plate.
"I guess people expect her to be a traditional leadoff hitter, but that's not the case," Cawley said of Houck, who's hitting .522. "I just hit her leadoff to try to get her as many at-bats as possible. … They had a lot guts today. They could have been easily deflated (down 3-2 in the seventh)."
In 2012 under Cawley, Wheeler won its first state tournament game since 1991, reaching the Class S quarterfinals. This year, the Lions will cause athletic director Ellen Turner to do a little redecorating, earning a championship banner to hang in the gymnasium.
"People are starting to make the road trips out to see us," Cawley said. "Not because they have kids on the team, just people from town that have heard about what's going on. It's nice to see them."