By Rick Menning
MANSFIELD, CT -- When it comes to the Little League 11-12 Division Girls' Softball All-Star competition in Connecticut, Milford has set the gold standard for long-term excellence on the diamond.
For the fifth consecutive summer, a team of 11- and 12-year-olds who call Brewster Field home -- and practice countless hours there in preparation for and during All-Star season -- have captured the state title.
And, once again, the scene was celebratory as the girls completed the traditional lap along the outfield fence while carrying the Connecticut banner. Parents, friends and relatives joined in the infield with the players and coaches for lots of hugs and memories to cherish.
This particular title was especially memorable for the Milford Little League Girls Softball program.
Reaching the half-decade mark of continuous state titles -- all by different teams with their own personalities and skill set -- was this time around anything but a walk through the park --Southeast Park in Mansfield to be specific -- but the Milford willpower and drive to be the best shone through once again.
Facing an incredibly tough Wallingford squad that forced them to win four straight games to continue their championship success in Connecticut, the Milford girls persevered through each challenge and earned yet another berth in the Little League Softball New England Region in Bristol.
The Milford squad will take on the winner of this Sunday's (July 23/4 p.m./ESPN+) Vermont vs. Maine game on Monday, July 24 at 4 p.m. at the A. Bartlett Giamatti Little League Leadership Training Center. The contest will be televised on ESPN+.
Conquering the uphill battle
After experiencing an uncharacteristically lopsided 11-3 loss to Wallingford in the state tournament opener, the ladies residing near the shores of Long Island Sound roared back through the elimination bracket to beat Colchester and Madison by identical 11-1 final scores.
They then faced the formidable task of having to defeat Wallingford -- which also blew past Madison 11-1 in its second game to emerge as the winner's bracket finalist -- twice on consecutive days to clinch the crown. Milford prevailed 3-1 in the Tuesday showdown and that led to the winner-take-all matchup in front of a large crowd on Wednesday evening in Mansfield.
Those in Milford's cheering section included members of last summer's New England championship team that advanced to the Little League Softball World Series in Greenville, North Carolina.
Battling through four innings of scoreless softball, the drama was building as the two heavyweight contenders from Milford and Wallingford simply refused to go down without a fight.
Pitchers Grace Weber (Milford) and Chloe Carling (Wallingford) were unrelenting inside the circle and there were few offensive chances from either side.
"These are two very evenly matched teams who know each other very well, and there is tremendous respect among our coaches and players. It has come down to our two teams (for years)," said manager Bryan Glynn, whose road warriors have now won nine of their 10 All-Star tournament games heading into regionals. "We knew that this was going to be an unbelievable dogfight; an absolute dogfight. (Just a matter of) whoever could scratch out a run first."
That first and only run came in the top of the fifth inning as Milford used its small-ball abilities to score and nail down a 1-0 victory. There were only seven total hits in the game as pitching and defense was in the forefront.
Two-out rally up the alley
Shortstop Holly Coon ripped a two-out hit to right field as Emily Speringo raced home from second base and eluded the attempted tag by Wallingford catcher Mary Jane Prentice at the plate for what turned out to be the winning tally.
Speringo -- who along with Riley Fagan-Davies was a member of last year's New England championship squad in the Little League Softball World Series -- had opened that decisive inning with a single to left field. Dani Kotansky followed with a well-placed sacrifice bunt to move Speringo into scoring position leading to Coon's dramatic liner.
"I was really (confident) that Holly would get that hit," said Speringo, who laughingly admitted that in all the excitement she almost missed the bag while rounding third base.
With a play at the plate assured, Speringo had to avoid the tag on the slide and then also sweep her hand back on to the plate.
"I could see it was going to be a close play," she said. "I knew the ball would be there so I just tried to get around her. I did miss (on the slide) so I had to stick my hand back on the plate."
Pivotal time for big hit
In terms of her thought process in that huge at-bat, Coon admitted to being nervous but at the same time knew she had the ability in that moment to produce.
"I was really nervous at first but then I just persevered and pushed through because I wanted to help my team win," she said. "I was just excited to see Emily score and it felt awesome."
Mindful that as the game went on it would likely take a dramatic hit to win, Coon remembered that she and her team could realize their dream of wearing the state crown and making regionals.
"We knew it was going to be a very close game and that it would be difficult because us and Wallingford are such good teams," Coon noted. "To come out on top and win this championship means a lot."
And so the magical summer continues.
"It's the best," Coon said. "We all try really hard and as a team we put everything into this. We all focus on this every single day at practice and in games."
Lights, cameras, action!
Speringo is happy to be headed back to Bristol with Fagan-Davies and their 2023 teammates in front of their home state supporters and with a national television audience looking on via the ESPN networks.
"It's honestly really so much fun to be going there again. I can't wait to play on Monday," she said. "I love last year's (World Series) team and I love this year's team so we'll just go out on the field and play together with teamwork and see what happens."
So what makes this year's team also special now that you have played on back-to-back New England Region-bound state championship squads?
"This year's team has fire in an aggressive way," Speringo explained. "It's like we always go out there with the mindset 'let's do this'. It's very straightforward; (the mentality is) we want to win and we do whatever it takes to win and I really like that about this team."
CT's runners-up never quit
Wallingford -- which opened the game with consecutive singles to left field by Nina Pereira and Arianna Cappiello before Weber ended that initial threat -- stayed in combat mode as Carling led off Wallingford's half of the fifth inning with a booming double to left/center field. However, Weber again refocused and retired the next six batters she would face in the game.
In fact, three of her four total strikeouts came over those last six outs. Going back to Tuesday's game in which she allowed Wallingford's only run in the first inning, Weber finished states with 11 straight scoreless innings.
"She was executing her pitches to near perfection; she has nasty, nasty stuff," said Glynn, who noted that Weber had been working on her velocity and various types of pitches over the spring in preparation for this All-Star season.
For Weber, who like the vast majority of this year's squad was a member of the state champion 11-Under Division team last summer, it's nice to return to Bristol as a player and not a fan in the bleachers.
"I remember sitting there last year cheering on our 12-unders and thinking how cool it would be to be playing on that field like they were," Weber said. "And now we are going there and it's so exciting."
Weber said the leadoff double by Carling in the fifth inning caused her to rachet up the intensity.
"I got mad and it made me pitch harder and throw more strikes," she continued. "I (pitched) like it was the first inning and it was 0-0. I had more focus."
Glovework in key situations
Milford catcher Marina Cosmas provided several critical defensive plays in Wednesday's deciding contest.
In the first inning, she transformed a pinpoint throw down to second base into a very important out on a caught stealing play. Then, just two batters later, she threw off her mask to zero in on a high pop to the right of home plate near the screen. She made a super catch for the final out of that inning.
But Cosmas wasn't finished. In the fifth inning, she tagged out a Wallingford baserunner racing down the line from third base on a fielder's choice grounder.
"I was just thinking that I had to have a positive attitude the whole game," Cosmas said. "I knew every play and every out was important."
Having a front row seat from her backstop position, Cosmas was in awe of Weber's performance.
"It's one of her best pitching (outings) I've ever seen," Cosmas exclaimed. "She was throwing where we needed her to throw it, and she was hitting her spots. It's amazing to catch for her."
Weber also had stellar fielding behind her as second baseman Audrey O'Connell was rock solid with three smooth putouts to first baseman Emma Bonanno, and third baseman Cayleigh Glynn (a pair of tosses over to Bonanno for ground outs), center fielder Fagan-Davies (two great catches on deep flies) and Coon (a caught pop-up to end the game) were also exceptional.
"We are like a family and everyone picks each other up whether it's batting or making plays in the field," Cosmas said. "We are very close as a team and that makes us work better together."
The All-Star journey moves on
Riley Fagan-Davies agrees with her returning teammate Emily Speringo that the excitement is high as they prepare to return to their New England field of dreams in Bristol.
She adds, however, that the past is the past and it's time to start a new chapter with this particular group.
"It's very, very exciting but also very scary because you don't know what's going to happen," Fagan-Davies said. "It's a new team and a new year."
The expectation, as always, is to take it one game at a time and hope for the best.
And with the way Grace Weber is pitching, Fagan-Davies feels as through Milford can make yet another impactful showing in Bristol.
"Grace is awesome. She pitched like three days in a row and is just getting stronger and stronger," Fagan-Davies said. "She's one of the reasons why we are where we are."
Cheers for Connecticut's best
Milford 12-Under Division Little League Girls Softball State Champion Team Roster: Emma Bonanno, Maya Brown, Holly Coon, Marina Cosmas, Riley Fagan-Davies, Cayleigh Glynn, Dani Kotansky, Sammy Marini, Addie McKenna-Hansen, Audrey O'Connell, Emily Speringo and Grace Weber.
Wallingford 12-Under Division Little League Girls Softball State Runnerup Team Roster: Arianna Cappiello, Chloe Carling, Addison Deangelis, Payton Hansen, Guliana Jordan, Addison Knight, Camryn Krystofolski, Nina Pereira, Mary Jane Prentice, Logan Slabaugh, Lauren Tansley and Mikayla Tortora.