The Valley Regional softball team’s 2017 campaign may very well end up serving as a turning point for the program. The Warriors posted a record of 13-9—marking a seven-win improvement from the previous season—on their way to qualifying for the Shoreline Conference Tournament, as well as the Class M State Tournament for the first time since 2014.
Valley benefited from an influx of young talent among its freshmen and sophomores, and they came up big for Head Coach Ken Wilson. Four of the Warriors’ nine starters were freshmen and another was a sophomore who was in her first year with the squad.
Valley got out to a bit of a slow start this spring by opening at 1-3, but then drew even by sweeping a doubleheader against Career, rallying to win the first game 10-9 before blowing out the Panthers 12-1 in the nightcap. After losing their next game to East Hampton, the Warriors went on a five-game win streak to qualify for states in just 12 games. Valley went 5-3 in its last eight regular season matchups before moving on to the playoffs. The Warriors faced off against Haddam-Killingworth in the quarterfinals of the Shoreline Conference Tournament and took a 13-6 defeat. Then in states, they dropped a 4-2 decision against Ellington in the first round.
Looking back on the season, Coach Wilson feels proud of what his team accomplished, especially with so many first-year players who hadn’t previously competed together.
“I can’t say enough about the team,” Wilson said. “We did a lot of team bonding during the season. We drove home that one player doesn’t win or lose a game. Everyone had to accept their roles and responsibilities accordingly to get to where we ended up.”
One of those first-year players proved huge for the Warriors in freshman pitcher Addy Bullis, who was named to the All-Shoreline Conference First Team and earned the Warriors’ Most Valuable Player Award. Bullis pitched in all 22 games on the season and finished with the same record as Valley at 13-9. She struck out 157 batters in 145 innings and held the opposition to a batting average of .194. Not only was Bullis a force on the mound, but she also batted .407 on 33 hits with 12 RBI, and only struck out twice in her 92 plate appearances. Coach Wilson depended on Bullis this spring and had nothing but praise for the freshman ace.
“She’s a player and a force for the team, both offensively and defensively. She can play three positions, but concentrates and excels at one, and that’s pitcher,” said Wilson. “She plays every game like it’s her last one. She’s committed, dedicated, and disciplined, and she definitely leaves it all on the field.”
Another first-year player that made a big-time impact for Valley was sophomore right fielder Abby Cunningham, who led the team in batting average at a .490 clip on 25 hits and also had four outfield assists. Cunningham made the All-Shoreline Conference Second Team and won the Warriors’ Most Improved Player award.
“When Abby joined the team, she probably had no idea she would be a starter and how quickly. In her first game, she was a courtesy runner, the next game she was a flex player, and the third game, she was the starting right fielder,” said Coach Wilson. “I’m sure it wasn’t easy for her. She’s new to the team, she’s learning the right field position, and she doesn’t want to let her teammates down. Abby was a sponge to everything. She rose to the challenge to be the best that she could be.”
Juniors Alex Figuenick and Rylee Da Re were also key contributors for the Warriors. Figuenick played a solid center field, had a .431 batting average, and received All-Shoreline Conference Honorable Mention. Da Re, Valley’s starting catcher, finished with a .419 batting average. That makes four players who hit more than .400 this year and, between Bullis, Cunningham, Figuenick, and Da Re, they accounted for 120 of the Warriors’ hits on the season. Coach Wilson was impressed with the way that they all went about their business.
“I compliment them for working so hard, doing off-tee work and working with the pitching machine,” Wilson said. “They were always patient at the plate during games and were able to find their pitch and take advantage.”
Another key component to the Warriors’ success was each player’s willingness to fill in the gaps when necessary. A prime of example of that was Valley’s Coach’s Award winner Lauren Allen. In addition to starting at the hot corner for the varsity squad, Allen, a freshman, would often pitch for the JV team. Coach Wilson appreciated how Allen would do anything to help the program.
“She would play any position, as long as she was playing. She wouldn’t question the coaches. She would say, ‘Wherever you need me.’ At times, she did double duty,” said Wilson. “She would pitch for the JV team, because they didn’t have a pitcher, but she was also the starting third baseman on varsity. She never questioned the coach, and never had a bad word to say about a teammate. She’s quiet, but she always wears a game face on the field. She’s just a coach’s dream.”
One other reason why Valley increased its win total this year was the team’s steadiness in the field. Several players posted high fielding percentages, with freshman left fielder/first baseman Carlee Kirla leading the team at .949.
“We had numerous starting players who had a fielding percentage over .900,” said Wilson. “That’s a good thing. If you can make nine out of 10 plays, you’ve done a good job.”
As a result of his team’s turnaround, Coach Wilson was voted the Shoreline Conference Coach of the Year by his peers in the league. While he’s grateful for the award, Wilson feels that it’s more of testament to his players than anything else.
“I can set up practice plans and implement strategies, but ultimately, the players have to go out there and play to win,” said Wilson. “They have to make it happen. Coaches can’t go out there and hit and field.”
As for the future of the team, Coach Wilson believes that the sky is the limit as long as his players stay hungry. This year’s senior captains, Morgan Bakoledis and Julia Jenkins, have both been in the program since their freshman years and always made sure the Warriors remained focused through all the ups and downs. Coach Wilson believes that a lot of the this year’s success stemmed from the framework built by Bakoledis and Jenkins.
“The future is bright. We have a good foundation. Every year, you’re sad to see the seniors go, but you know there will be another group on the back end. I think in any sport, success breeds interest. I really believe that this year is the culmination of a lot of players that played previously like [Jenkins and Bakoledis],” said Coach Wilson. “I hope that the team appreciates what they did this year, and that they want to build on it. They don’t just want to get to the tournaments; they want to make some noise there. I believe that will happen.”
• The Warriors’ wins this season came against Old Saybrook (19-4), Career (10-9 and 12-1), Old Lyme (14-4), Portland (15-0), Cromwell (9-8 and 9-4), Haddam-Killingworth (9-3), Coginchaug (2-1), Somers (5-1), Morgan (12-4 and 4-0), and Kennedy (7-2).
• Valley Regional’s varsity roster featured senior captains Morgan Bakoledis and Julia Jenkins; juniors Alex Figuenick and Rylee Da Re; sophomores Kelli Schaefer, Abby Cunningham, Olivia Kollmer, and Allysah Tisdale; and freshmen Addy Bullis, Lauren Allen, Riley Millburne, and Carlee Kirla.
• Head Coach Ken Wilson was assisted by Karen Paulson, who was in her second season with the team; along with program alum and former team MVP Megan Korcak, who was in her first year on the coaching staff.