NFA edges No. 1 South Windsor 2-1 in Class LL softball quarterfinals
South Windsor — On the surface, eighth-seeded Norwich Free Academy's 2-1 victory over top-seeded South Windsor and its Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year, pitcher Maria Hanchuk, sure had the feel of a major upset.
Just don't tell that to NFA coach Bryan Burdick and his players.
The Wildcats entered Friday's CIAC Class LL softball quarterfinal with a quiet confidence ... and delivered.
Bailey Comeau pitched a three-hitter and blasted a solo home run as NFA held on to end the Bobcats' perfect season and earn a trip to the semifinals, where they will face No. 4 Cheshire on either Monday or Tuesday at a site and time to be determined.
"This is team playing really well right now," Burdick said. "And let's be honest, unlike some of the teams we've faced this postseason, like Ludlowe (in the second round), they had only one senior. We have six, they're all starters, and they're all playing in college next year.
"We have that leadership. Bailey, Brooke (Gottshall), Hailee (Schrader) and Sara (Cote), they've been here before four times, and Julie (Vincent) has been here three. They're battle tested. They know they can't get complacent. They know if you don't win today, your season and career is over."
And the Wildcats (20-4) went out and played with a sense of urgency against a team that beat them 1-0 in the regular season on an unearned run.
On Friday, however, it was a different story.
NFA jumped on Hanchuk, who had allowed only 32 hits all season (six to NFA in the first meeting). Schrader led off the game with a double to left-center and Vincent attempted to bunt her to third.
Vincent, however, was safe at first for a base hit, and when the ball caromed off the glove of South Windsor's second baseman covering the bag, Schrader never stopped running and came around to score for a 1-0 lead.
The score remained the same until the sixth when Comeau pulled a 1-2 pitch over the fence in right-center for a solo home run and an important insurance run because the Bobcats would make things interesting in their final at-bat.
South Windsor's Taylor Darby had a 10-pitch at-bat leading off the inning before drawing a walk. Comeau struck out the next batter, but Lyndsay Donston doubled down the line to score Darby, with Donston taking third on the throw home. Following another strikeout, South Windsor attempted to squeeze home the tying run with two outs, but Becca Vesco's bunt attempt with two strikes was fouled back and the game ended.
Comeau allowed only two hits while walking three and striking out 12. Hanchuk ended her career by allowing seven hits (two by Schrader) with two walks and 10 strikeouts.
"I knew we matched up well with them," Burdick said. "Our offense is very balanced 1-9, plus we've seen some good pitching this year because we played a very tough schedule."
How tough? The other three teams to defeat NFA during the regular season — Southington, Stamford and East Haven — are still alive in the state tournament and play quarterfinal round games on Saturday.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, have played in five straight quarterfinals and will be making their second semifinal appearance during that time. Cheshire, ironically, has eliminated NFA three of the last four seasons, but Burdick said his players won't go into that game feeling like an underdog, either.
"This team had plans all year long," he said. "While we never said, 'This is where we want to get to,' it was the unspoken. We know we have a team that can be very good, we know we have a team that can go deep into a tournament, and we know we have a team that if it plays to best of our ability, we can do very good things.
"I'm not going to say we're going to win a state championship, or even our next game, but this is a team that believes that they can, and a team that's talented enough and smart enough to put it together."
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