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Wheeler bows out, but not for lack of offense

COVENTRY — If you told Wheeler High softball coach Joe Cawley before the game that the Lions would score five runs in the Class S quarterfinal Friday against Coventry, he’d sign for it without hesitating.

“I’d definitely feel good about five runs, especially considering since we’ve given up one run in our first two state games and that run was unearned,” Cawley said.

But if you told Cawley his team would not execute flawlessly at the plate, on the mound or in the field, he may reconsider if five runs would be enough.

Five runs were not enough as Coventry took advantage of every Wheeler misstep and played an aggressive brand of softball to post an 8-5 victory and end one of the Lions’ most successful seasons ever with a 16-6 record.

The third-seeded Patriots (18-3) parlayed four sacrifice bunts, reached safely on two other bunts, plus took advantage of imperfect defense and losing pitcher Jenn Paride’s uncharacteristically high walk total of three.

“I knew Coventry was good at playing ‘small ball’ and I knew as we went farther in the tourney there would be more strategy involved,” Cawley said. “Coventry took advantage of every opening.

“Right now, my feeling is one of disappointment because I feel we could have won today and could have won the whole thing. This team has been such a big part of our lives in the afternoon after school, I feel a bit lost now that we’re not going to be continuing this year.”

The Patriots, who like Wheeler feature a number of underclassman starters including four freshmen, jumped on Wheeler mistakes in the second inning to score four runs and lead 4-0.

Meg Blanchard singled and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt. Paride then walked the No. 8 and No. 9 batters on eight pitches as home plate umpire Dudley Hamlin was not giving her a high strike call. Paride walked just 29 in 128 innings coming into Friday.

With the bases loaded, senior Eileen Zadrozny, Coventry’s leadoff batter and winning pitcher, hit a hard liner to center field. The ball was misjudged and not caught, falling for a deep, two-run double. Instead of inning over the no score, the inning continued and Coventry’s Julie Caromile followed with a two-run single to make it, 4-0.

“It’s a ball that could have been had,” Cawley said. “The ball right at the center fielder is the toughest to judge and it’s not an easy play. She came in a little bit and got a glove on it, but in the end that was just one of the mistakes we made.”

True to Wheeler’s comeback nature, the Lions got back in the game with three runs in the top of the third inning. Mirandah Ackley walked and Kaite Morgan singled. Raven Houck, the Lions’ top hitter, then drilled a three-run homer over the 205-foot fence in left-center to make it 4-3.

But the Patriots were relentless, putting their bat on the ball if not crushing it. Blanchard singled again and moved to third when a sacrifice bunt was thrown away. Paride hit a batter to load the bases and then walked the No. 9 batter again to force in a run. Another run scored after an infield out to give Coventry a 6-3 lead after three innings.

Zadrozny, combining a decent fastball with a variety of changeups, retired Wheeler three up and three down in four innings and allowed just four hits while striking out 10.

Coventry added single runs in the fourth and fifth off Paride, who allowed nine hits and six earned runs while striking out six, to make it 8-3 going into the seventh.

“At the start of the year, I wasn’t sure how good we’d be because we’re so young,” Coventry coach Thomas Williams said. “One thing I knew is that we were going to be aggressive at the plate on the bases and at the plate.

“We weren’t going to strike out a lot and we were going to bunt, bunt, bunt and move runners along. We try to force teams to make plays. Wheeler is a good team. Their pitcher is strong and it’s never over with them. They come back.”

Wheeler made it interesting in the seventh.

Samantha Muller walked to lead off. After two strikeouts, Ackley walked and Morgan singled home a run to make it 8-4. Houck hit a long RBI single off the fence in right center that missed being her second three-run homer by a few feet.

Houck’s shot made it 8-5 and put the tying run at the plate, but Zadrozny forced a groundout to end the game.

Houck and Morgan had two hits each for Wheeler’s only hits.

Only two seniors will graduate for Wheeler as many of its top players, including ECC-Small first team picks Houck (a .490 hitter) and Paride (15-5, 213 strikeouts in 134 innings), will return.

“We’re the first Wheeler team to win an ECC division title, won 16 games. ...,” Houck said. “We definitely feel it was a great season.”

A rare state-tournament participant in the past 30 seasons, the Lions advanced farther than any Wheeler team since the 1985 squad lost to Derby, 2-0 in the Class S semifinals. That team finished 15-7 overall and was second to Hale-Ray in the Quinebaug Valley Conference Southern Division.

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