NORTH STONINGTON — Wheeler High freshman Samantha Muller singled home the winning run in the eighth inning of the Lions’ 2-1 victory over Kolbe Cathedral in the Class S state tournament second round Tuesday.
It marked one of the times a walk-off hit was not the key hit in the game. Without Muller’s hit in the seventh inning, there would have been no walk-off hit in the eighth and no quarterfinal berth for Wheeler (16-5) at No. 3 seeded Coventry 4 p.m. Thursday
Muller’s long solo homer to left field to lead off the bottom of the seventh tied the score at 1-1. Prior to that, the Lions were plowed down all game by Kolbe right-hander Victoria Trentini, who had allowed just two hits and struck out eight in the first six innings.
It was almost like the Lions were facing a clone of their overpowering right-hander Jenn Paride, who allowed just an unearned run in the second inning and two hits overall while striking out 12.
“I told the girls one run wasn’t going to be enough,” Kolbe coach Dave Hennessy said. “It looked like it was going to have to do for us.”
Thankfully for the Lions, Muller felt no pressure staring at what looked like a large one-run deficit in the seventh. The Lions left two runners on in the sixth with the heart of their order up. They were running out of time.
But on the second pitch of Muller’s at bat in the seventh, she drove a shot well over the left fielder’s head. The ball rolled as far as the foul pole over 215 feet away. Wheeler coach Joe Cawley said he probably would have held Muller at third if Kolbe executed a perfect relay.
But Muller was striding well around the bases and the left fielder’s relay bounced away from the shortstop. Muller did not break stride and came home easily.
“I like to face fast pitching,” Muller said. “I knew we needed to score, but I was just looking to have a quick bat and drive the ball somewhere. I was thinking of circling the bases to score the run, because no one on this team is ready to be out of this tournament.”
Paride, who is 15-4 with 207 strikeouts and a 0.66 ERA, had no trouble with any batter for Kolbe (13-8) other than clean-up batter Karla Grajeda, who doubled and hit two shots that were grabbed for defensive gems — Muller making a diving stop and throw at short and Maddie Porter making a running catch in right field.
Grajeda doubled in the second and moved to third on a passed ball. Even though Paride struck out the next three batters, Grajeda scored when a third strike wasn’t caught. Catcher Raven Houck threw to first base for an out for the strikeout, but Wheeler first baseman Kylie Baker couldn’t quickly get the ball out of her glove to throw home to get Grajeda coming from third.
“It was a tough play, but it would have been tough to lose on that run,” Cawley said. “Raven made a play to throw to first for that out and probably we get a double play if the throw is cleanly caught and thrown home. Maybe Raven could have faked a throw to first and caught the runner off third. I didn’t want her to not throw to first, then you have runners on first and third and the squeeze comes into play. Thankfully, that run did not stand.”
Thanks to Muller, who has hit a pair of home runs this season while batting .286. She collected three of Wheeler’s six hits Tuesday. Three of Wheeler’s hits came in the telltale eighth.
Houck (2 for 4) ripped a grounder down the third bases line to lead off the eighth. Jess Morgan lined the ball back off Trentini on the mound for an infield single to put runners on first and third with no outs. Hennessey ordered his infield and outfield in but chose to pitch to Paride, Wheeler’s No. 3 hitter, eschewing the chance to produce a force play at any base.
Paride hit a grounder right at the second baseman, forcing Cawley to hold Houck at third. The second baseman, though, froze and did not record the out at first to load the bases. After an infield groundout to force Houck at home for one out, Muller came up again with the game on the line.
“I was much looser coming up in the eighth inning,” Muller said. “She wasn’t throwing quite as hard and I was determined to hit the ball hard again. A fly ball was going to win the game.”
Muller lined the ball into an open space in left to score Morgan with the winning run, giving her the rare feat of delivering the game-tying and game-winning RBIs in the same game.
“This was our fifth game that went into extra innings, and we’ve won all of them which speaks to our character as team,” Cawley said. “We had all the confidence that Jenn wasn’t going to give up another run so all we needed was the scratch out a run. As usual, she is in control of the lineup she faces. She gives us a shot every single day.”
Cawley said the Lions have a shot to go much deeper in the tournament. Coventry (18-3) won the North Central Connecticut Conference and has been on an offensive roll, scoring 99 runs in its last seven games, including a 15-0 win over Ellis Tech in the Class S second round.
Coventry and Wheeler have won common opponent — Windham. The Lions swept the Whips, 15-0 and 9-1, and the Patriots beat Windham, 10-2.
“We’re not a team of destiny or a team that gets lucky bounces or a team that is on a roll, we expect to win now,” Cawley said. “Our goal early was to win eight and make the tournament, then it was to win the ECC-Small, then make some noise in the states. But things have changed. We’re in it to win it now.”