East Haddam-Guilford All-Stars Softball Wins District and Section Titles
The East Haddam-Guilford (EH-G) 12-U All-Stars Little League Majors softball team blasted off some fireworks when it competed in the District 9 Tournament over the Fourth of July weekend and then kept the party going at the Section 3 Tournament the following week. EH-G claimed district and sectional titles by winning both tournaments to advance to the state’s Final Four, capturing each championship in dramatic fashion.
EH-G, which is in its inaugural season featuring players from East Haddam and Guilford, won six of its seven games in the District 9 Tournament and ultimately took the title by defeating Middletown/Haddam-Killingworth in the final game of a best-of-3 championship series on July 2. EH-G lost a 5-4 decision in the opening game of the series. Facing elimination, Head Coach Erik Jankowski’s squad earned a 4-3 victory in the second game and then posted a 7-0 shutout in a winner-take-all matchup to claim the District 9 crown at Romagialli Field in Middletown.
With that win, EH-G moved on to compete in the Section 3 Tournament last weekend. EH-G gained a split of two pool-play games to advance to the final for a rematch against a Rocky Hill squad that it had just lost to. In the championship game, EH-G rallied for a 9-8 win versus Rocky Hill to secure the Section 3 title after having been down to its final strike in a wild game at Rotary Field in Waterford on July 10.
The athletes on the EH-G 12-U All-Stars softball squad are Guilford residents Delphine Barbera, Katherine Eaton, Ava Gentile, Taylor Ketchum, Sarah O’Brien, and Hannah Prior; along with East Haddam residents Layla Adams, Laurel Beisel, Avery Campbell, Briella Dean, Fenway Jankowski, Autumn Landry, Makaylee Martin, and Olivia Varni. Coach Jankowski, who is from East Haddam, is joined on his coaching staff by Chad Eaton of Guilford, along with fellow Guilford resident Joe Gentile and Peter Dean of East Haddam.
“We’re really happy for the girls, and we’re really happy our plan kind of came together. We saw the potential in joining teams at the end of the regular season, and it ended up working out,” Coach Jankowski said. “We couldn’t be happier with the group of girls that we have. They just compete every single day and every inning.”
The EH-G 12-U All-Stars held five practices prior to participating in the District 9 Tournament, allowing players who had previously been strangers with an opportunity to get to know one another. Jankowski and his fellow coaches were happy to see people from two different towns join forces to form a team of All-Stars.
“You need 12 to 14 players. We only had 12 to begin with. We had some younger girls that we brought up from Minors that probably wouldn’t be ready for this much competition at this point,” said Jankowski. “I reached out to Chad from the Guilford Majors team and asked him if he’d be interested in combining teams to make one All-Star team. After talking back-and-forth for a few days, we decided to do it.”
Combining players from Guilford and East Haddam turned out to be an outstanding idea for everyone involved. While the level of talent and skill on the team was apparent from the first day of practice, there was still an adjustment period as the new teammates introduced themselves to each other. However, it didn’t take long for the team’s players to mesh together.
“One of the coolest things for us is that when we started practicing, we had six girls from one town and eight from the other town that didn’t know each other,” Jankowski said. “The first couple of practices, you could kind of see when they took a water break, half the girls would be together and the other half would be together. Now, they’re all just intermingled as one team, which is pretty cool for us to see. As important as the softball is, I think that’s just as, if not, more important.”
As the team began to jell, EH-G started off the District 9 Tournament by playing four pool-play games to determine the top two teams that would advance to the championship series. The All-Stars squad won all four games by posting a 14-0 victory over Middletown/Haddam-Killingworth (M/H-K) on June 23, a 14-1 win versus Durham-Portland on June 24, a 12-0 shutout against East Hampton on June 26, and a 7-5 win versus Madison on June 28.
After outscoring its opponents by a 47-6 margin in pool play, the EH-G All-Stars took on M/H-K for a best-of-3 series with the District 9 title on the line. M/H-K had gone 3-1 in pool play with its only loss coming to EH-G. Coach Jankowski was impressed with his team’s performance in the pool play portion of the tournament, especially since some of his players were taking on roles that they weren’t accustomed to.
“A lot of the girls have had set positions already that they’re comfortable playing, and they’ve been playing for some years. They’ve been very open to change,” said Jankowski. “We’ve had some girls start and play in some places where maybe they’re not comfortable or used to. They’ve taken on that role, and they’re willing to do that to try and help the team.”
M/H-K won the first game of the best-of-3 championship by hitting a walk-off home run for a 5-4 victory on June 30. With its back against the wall, EH-G responded by claiming a 4-3, extra-inning victory the next day, winning the game on a walk-off steal of home plate by Ava Gentile.
Now with everything at stake, the EH-G All-Stars turned in a dominating performance to notch a 7-0 win versus M/H-K on July 2, clinching the District 9 title. Sarah O’Brien delivered a tremendous effort on the mound by pitching 6 scoreless innings for EH-G. Fenway Jankowski had a key steal of home in the victory. Winning the championship meant so much to a team that had only formed just a few weeks earlier.
“It was a pretty good run of games. They’ve very excited,” Coach Jankowski said. “As far as I know, that’s as far as either town has made it. They’re super competitive and looking forward to how far we can go.”
By virtue of winning the District 9 title, EH-G advanced to compete in the Section 3 Tournament in Waterford. EH-G started off sectionals by earning a 4-3 victory versus Salem-Montville (S-M) on July 7, winning the game on a walk-off bunt in the bottom of the sixth inning. With one out, Briella Dean worked a walk and then stole second base. Olivia Varni followed by putting down a perfect bunt toward first base, allowing Dean to come around to score the winning run on the throw to first.
O’Brien pitched a good game for EH-G and was aided by some key defensive plays from the team’s fielders. Katherine Eaton, Jankowski, and O’Brien all scored in the first inning as EH-G took a 3-1 lead. S-M tied the game with 2 runs in the top of the sixth inning before EH-G won the game in the bottom half of the frame.
The next day, EH-G took a 7-2 loss against Rocky Hill in its second contest of sectionals. Eaton tripled to lead off the game and later scored to give EH-G a 1-0 lead. However, Rocky Hill’s pitcher threw a great game and was bolstered by solid defense as EH-G faced a 7-1 deficit entering the sixth inning. EH-G plated a run in the sixth when Taylor Ketchum reached on a bunt and then scored on a double from Eaton.
After going 1-1 in pool play, EH-G advanced to the Section 3 final when Rocky Hill earned a 5-3 win over S-M on July 9, setting up a rematch with Rocky Hill in the title game the next day. In a back-and-forth matchup, EH-G came away with a 9-8 victory after scoring 2 runs with 2 outs in the bottom of the sixth for another walk-off win.
Rocky Hill grabbed a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, but EH-G responded with 3 runs in the bottom half as Eaton, Jankowski, and O’Brien all reached base and scored for a 3-1 advantage. The game was tied 4-4 entering the fifth inning. After Rocky Hill went up 5-4, EH-G came back with a 3-spot in the bottom of the fifth to take a 7-5 lead. Eaton and Jankowski scored the first 2 runs, after which Dean executed a delayed steal for the third run of the inning.
EH-G recorded the first two outs of the sixth inning and was now on the verge of the title. However, Rocky Hill used a few timely hits to rally for 3 runs and take an 8-7 advantage.
EH-G’s first two batters were retired in the bottom of the sixth inning. Eaton stepped up to the plate as the team’s last chance to keep its tournament hopes alive. Down to her final strike, Eaton delivered a line-drive single to right-center field keep the game going. Next up was Jankowski and, with a 2-strike count, she crushed a ball into the left-center field gap that brought home Eaton with the tying run.
Following a pair of intentional walks to load the bases, Varni stepped into the batter’s box for EH-G. Varni worked the count to 3-1 and then took a high fastball for ball 4, allowing Jankowski to score the winning run to give EH-G a thrilling 9-8 victory that solidified the Section 3 title.
Eaton and Jankowski both scored 3 runs, while O’Brien had 2 runs scored for EH-G in the championship game. O’Brien also notched the win on the mound after defeating a talented Rocky Hill team.
“It’s really exciting, because they battled to the last pitch,” said Coach Jankowski. “We went back-and-forth with a really talented team with a good pitcher and a lot of good hitters. We knew coming into it from the first game that they were going to score runs, so we definitely had to hit the ball better than we did the first time we played them. The kids really stepped up and did that.”
EH-G is now competing in the state’s Final Four for 12-U All-Stars softball, joining Milford, Wallingford, and Preston-Jewett City (P-JC) in the tournament. EH-G, which has an overall record of 8-2, is playing P-JC in its first game of the tourney on Wednesday, July 13 at 5:30 p.m. The Final Four culminates with the championship on Saturday, July 16 and Sunday, July 17.
The accomplishments of the EH-G 12-U All-Stars softball team have provided a significant amount of pride for both towns. Coach Jankowski is excited about what the team has achieved thus far this summer and feels eager to see what’s to come for his club the rest of the way.
“The younger girls are learning a lot from the older experienced kids. Some of the younger girls are starting to learn and see what the next level is all about,” Jankowski said. “We’ve just got to keep trying to get them to realize that they deserve to be here, and they’re just as good as these teams that we’re playing.”