The Darien Blue Wave softball team came into last Friday’s contest against Westhill with a 7-9 record, having lost five of its last six games and sitting one win away from qualifying for the Class LL postseason.
With their final three games on the road against strong St. Joe’s, Norwalk and West Haven teams, the Blue Wave knew a state playoff berth was hanging in the balance Friday night against the Vikings.
Led by a strong performance from freshman pitcher Grace Karas, the Wave punched that postseason ticket with a 5-1 win at home over Westhill — a rematch of last year’s FCIAC championship game. And although this year’s Senior Night showdown might not have carried the glitz and glamour of last spring’s game, the stakes were just as high for the Wave.
“That was huge,” Darien head coach Nick DeMaio said. “If we didn’t get it off Westhill, I’m not sure where it would have come from with our history of collapsing against the better teams. There was a pretty good chance we would not have made the postseason if we did not get the win where we got it.”
Instead the Wave rode the back — and bat — of their young pitcher while taking advantage of three Westhill errors en route to the victory. Karas gave up just four hits over seven innings, walking two and striking out four for the win. Karas also helped herself at the plate, going 2-for-3 with a run and RBI.
Senior co-captain Stefani Gentile also had two hits for the Wave, who have now appeared in the state playoffs every year of DeMaio’s decade-long tenure as head coach.
“At the beginning of the season that’s always one of the goals,” DeMaio said. “First get into states, then get into FCIAC’s. We made that first goal, but missed the second. We’ve never failed in my ten years to make the state tournament, so that was a big win.”
Darien got off to a fast start, scoring once in the first inning and twice in the second giving Karas all the support she would need.
Senior co-captain Hailey King led off the bottom of the first with a single and moved to second on fellow senior co-captain Keilani Caruso’s sacrifice bunt.
Sophomore Rosali Pirone followed with a grounder to short that was misplayed, and after King advance to third the Wave had runners at the corners with one out.
Two pitches later, Pirone and King executed a double-steal with King coming home to score the first run of the game.
After setting down the Vikings in order in both the first and second innings, Karas led off the bottom of the second with a single up the middle. Junior Sydney Fagerstrom followed with a double to center, driving home Karas for a 2-0 lead. Freshman Madeleine Conte moved Fagerstrom to third with a sac bunt and junior E’sachi Smalls plated her with a sac fly to right, extending the Wave lead to 3-0.
Meanwhile, Karas was cruising along, with the only blemish coming in the top of the fourth as Westhill senior Annalise Fishell drove in the Viking’s lone run with a two-out single to center, cutting the Darien lead to 3-1.
Darien got that run back in the bottom of the fifth. With one out, Pirone singled to center and advanced to third on senior co-captain Stefani Gentile’s two-out single. Once again, the Wave pulled off a double-steal as Pirone came home with Gentile taking second to make it 4-1.
Karas followed with an RBI single to center to give Darien a 5-1 lead. That held as the final score as Karas retired the Vikings in order in the sixth and seventh innings.
With the win, Darien improved to 8-9 overall and 5-8 in the FCIAC. Despite their obvious youth and inexperience, DeMaio knows from past experience that regular season records go out the window once the postseason starts.
“All you have to do is upset a couple of teams and people notice you,” DeMaio said. “I’ve already told them that this is a team that is capable of doing that if they play up their potential.”