UNCASVILLE — Moments after Wheeler High registered the final out to preserve a 6-3, eight-inning softball victory over St. Bernard Monday, the Lions slowly trotted off the field, exchanged tacit high-fives and cracked a few smiles.
No balloons, Gatorade bucket dousing, bells or whistles for the Lions. It was more of a business-as-usual reaction to something that comes around less often than leap year.
To some, the casual celebration was surprising as Wheeler rallied from a run down in the seventh to tie the game and then won it with three in the eighth to win the ECC-Small Division title outright and avoid a co-championship with the Saints.
After all, this was Wheeler’s first ECC-Small softball title ever and just the third girls’ ECC division championship. Wheeler won the basektball Small title in the 2007-08 season and the Small tennis title in 2003.
“Yes, we should be excited to go 10-0 and win it outright,” Wheeler coach Joe Cawley said. “But we’re 14-3 this year. Two years ago we won 14 games and two in the states and last year we won 11 games and one in the states. We’re a program that expects to win now.”
The players’ parents and friends, however, did not think it was a routine occasion, asking the team to lineup in the infield for a 10-minute photo session to commemorate the moment. Wheeler improved to 14-3, 10-0 ECC-Small while dropping the Saints to 13-7, 8-2 ECC-Small.
“We knew we had at least a share of the division coming in, but finishing first alone is always better than tying or finishing second,” Wheeler pitcher Jenn Paride said. “It’s great to get a banner, but we have a lot of goals ahead of us, like advancing deep in (the Class S state tournament).”
The game had a tournament feel with sacrifice bunt, strategy, umpire discussions, clutch hitting and shutdown pitching. Paride, battling flu affects last week, struck out 12, but admitted she was not quite her overpowering self.
But while she has carried Wheeler in many games, her teammates help her out in spades Monday.
Sophomore catcher and leadoff hitter Raven Houck, was 4 for 5, including a game-tying solo homer in the top of the seventh. With one out and two strikes on her, Houck took a close pitch on the corner for a ball before blasting the next pitch in the left-center gap.
She ran all the way home and slid in safely to tie the score at 3-3 as the relay throw bounced away from the Saints’ catcher.
“I’m lucky the umpire called that a ball, but Jen wasn’t getting that pitch either,” Houck said. “On the next pitch, I was just trying to make contact as I had all game.”
Cawley was thrilled and surprised that St. Bernard gave Houck, who is batting .522, anything good to hit. In the second inning, Wheeler, up 1-0, had a runner on second with two outs. With first base open, the Saints pitched to Houck, who lined her second hit to give the Lions a 2-0 lead.
“If I were sitting in a chair, I would have fell off it,” Cawley said, referring to St. Bernard pitching to Houck. “Raven hits everything. She’s the best hitter I’ve seen in any game this season.”
St. Bernard got a run back when Ali Patterson homered to left to make it, 2-1, in the third.
Paride (six hits allowed) pitched out of trouble all game, stranding seven runners. She nearly got out of a jam in St. Bernard’s sixth after the Saints put runners on first and second on an infield error and a misplayed sacrifice bunt. After striking out the next two, Paride had two strikeouts on Amy Bouchard before the opposing pitcher lofted a two-run triple to right center to make it 3-2.
Houck’s homer tied it in the seventh, but St. Bernard threatened in the bottom of the frame. A one-out walk and sacrifice bunt put the winning run on second. Wheeler chose to intentionally walk No. 3 batter Gretchen Greene. With a 2-0 count, Greene swung at a free-pass pitch that was close to the outside corner and popped to first base for the final out.
Wheeler’s second half of the batting order came through in the eighth. After one out, Samantha Muller reached on an infield error and Micaela Bergel singled. Freshman Emma Stock’s infield grounder was misplayed to allow the go-ahead run to score. Maddie Porter followed with a two-run single to make it, 6-3.
“The bottom of the order put their bat on the ball and really came through,” Cawley said. “Porter had the hit of the day.”
St. Bernard went quietly in the eighth, and Wheeler celebrated quietly, but satisfyingly.
“There were a few errors and it was not quite a classic game,” Paride said. “But to go 10-0 in the division and beat the challenger on the road in the last game, it’s a good feeling.”
Wheeler ends the regular season at home against Bacon Academy 4 p.m. today before opening play in the ECC tournament Wednesday at Griswold.