Bears top Lancers to forge tie in Div. II in annual Play4TheCure game
Stonington — Both teams wore the same jersey, gold tie-dye, gold representing the fight against childhood cancer.
So even as the Stonington and Waterford high school softball teams were fighting for the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division II lead late Monday afternoon, there was a unique sense of unity, a symmetry.
Stonington finished with a game-winning double by Miranda Arruda in the bottom of the eighth inning for a 6-5 win, forging a two-way tie at the top of the Division II standings between the two teams which banded together for the ninth straight year to battle cancer, via a Play4TheCure initiative.
Yet, somehow Monday wasn't defined by winning or losing.
"Ann-Marie (Houle, Stonington coach) does a great job," Waterford coach Andy Walker said following the loss. "I hate losing, but if we're going to lose on a walk-off by someone, she works so hard on this game, she deserves it."
A pregame ceremony featured the families of Madeline Guarraia of Waterford and Dorian Murray of Westerly, both children who lost their fight with cancer, as well as several other members of the community touched by the unforgiveness of the disease.
And then Waterford senior Marissa Walker, Andy Walker's niece, took the mound for the Lancers. Walker, who overcame osteosarcoma as a young girl and is still feeling the effects of the latest surgery on her left leg in January — to replace a portion of the prothesis inside the leg — pitched 1.2 innings in front of her family, including dad Pete, the Toronto Blue Jays pitching coach, who stopped at home on his off day.
"The admiration and respect I have for her is unlimited," said Houle, the Stonington coach, becoming choked up as she tried to find the words for Walker's achievements. "She's part of us."
It was Houle, however, who got to celebrate the final outcome, practically chasing freshman pinch runner Shea O'Connor to home plate as she rounded third on Arruda's game-winner in the left-center field gap.
Sarah Flakus reached on an error with out out in the eighth and O'Connor came on to pinch run. Colette Dreher dropped a bunt single in front of the mound, putting runners on first and second for Arruda, the leadoff hitter. Arruda connected, one inning after the Bears (11-4, 6-2) left runners on second and third.
Arruda also tracked down several long fly balls in center field, four of them in the sixth through eighth innings, as Stonington pitcher Trinity Lennon, who became emotional following the conclusion of the game, retired the last 11 hitters she faced.
Lennon gave up a game-winning grand slam to Waterford's Taylor Lee the last time the teams played April 20.
"We know it's the Play4TheCure. We want to leave it all out there and also win this game to get back in the ECC," Arruda said. "It was a big battle of emotion. ... (The last game against Waterford) still hurts a little bit."
"I love these kids," Houle said. "I thought the meaning of this game was how this game was played. It's what this game is about. Teamwork. Adversity. It's so symbolic. We had some errors that cost us some runs, but you just fight."
Stonington led 3-0 in the second inning, taking advantage of five walks and a two-run single by Abby Flakus. But the top of the third belonged to Waterford (7-8, 6-2), which batted around to take a 4-3 lead.
Stonington scored twice in the fourth on another two-run single by Flakus (3-for-4, 4 RBI) and Waterford tied it in the fifth on a solo home run over the right fielder's head by Madison Nott (2-for-4, 2 RBI).
But just when the game appeared to be a jumble, both teams settled in on defense. Lennon allowed just one hit after the home run, a single by Ashlee Hancock, and Waterford pitcher Rachel Miller pitched three straight scoreless innings, as well, to send the game into extras.
Waterford went 1-2-3 in the eighth, with a ground ball to Lennon and two fly outs to Arruda.
"It was weird. Bat around one inning and go 1-2-3 the next," Andy Walker said. "... It's always a tough day. The routine is different. The significance of the day ... it puts this game in perspective."
Walker called the progress Marissa Walker, the Lancers' captain, has made since her major surgery earlier this year "unreal." Monday made the third pitching appearance of the season for the lefty after a determined stretch of rehabilitation.
"To think she would be out here for more than a batter in a ceremonial fashion ..." Walker said. "But aside from that, there's this competitor in her. She wanted to stay in the game. She came out here today to pitch a perfect game.
"I went over to her in the dugout afterward and said, 'Hey, listen. You're out here competing.' She knew that. But tears of that competitor were in there. She wanted to beat them today."
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