In the late rounds of the high school softball tournament, even the best teams have just a slim margin for error.
Such was the case Saturday for the second-seeded softball team, which lost to Rocky Hill in the state Class M title game 6-0 at DeLuca Field in Stratford.
The Bears, normally among the finest fielding teams in the state, had a crucial third-inning pop fly in the infield fall to the ground, allowing the Terriers to capitalize to the tune of five runs, and seize control of what was, until that point, a close game.
To set the scene, with two outs and the score tied 0-0 in the top of the third, the No. 4 Terriers (22-1) had runners on first and second when Erin Weber hit a pop fly in front of home plate that was high enough that either pitcher Neve Stearns or catcher Samantha Groskritz could have caught.
But a miscommunication allowed the ball to drop, creating a bases-loaded situation for Rocky Hill’s best hitter, Megan Ruonavaara, who is also the team’s pitcher.
Ruonavaara, who went 0-for-5 in the semifinal game against Seymour, delivered with a double to left center, clearing the bases and giving Rocky Hill a 3-0 lead.
“You knew she wasn’t going to go oh-fer again, that wasn’t going to happen,” Rocky Hill coach Jim Ferris said. “I felt like, ‘Oh boy, this is it now.’ … That was big to break it open. That gave them a lot of confidence.”
The Terriers scored two more runs in the inning on RBI singles by Katie Seaver and Katie Slavin to give Rocky Hill a 5-0 lead after three innings.
The five runs - Rocky Hill tacked on an insurance run in the top of the seventh - were more than enough for Ruonavaara, who allowed just two runs over the course of four tournament wins against Tolland, Jonathan Law, Seymour and Granby Memorial en route to the title.
“I was pretty calm. … It was nice to jump out early with five runs,” Ruonavaara, the tournament MVP, said. “We knew it was going to be hard. It wasn’t going to be easy.”
Ruonavaara was dominant, yielding just five hits and no walks, while striking out six in seven innings. She flirted with a perfect game, setting down the first 13 batters she faced before yielding back-to-back-to-back one-out singles to Sam Groskritz, Amy Bilodeau and Ellie Bourque in the bottom of the fifth inning. She got the next two batters with a strikeout and a ground ball back to the box.
“I didn’t have too many concerns,” Ferris said of the bases loaded jam. “I knew our defense would come through. I expected that they were going to get a couple. But the good thing is we got that fourth and fifth run in that inning, instead of just a 3-run inning, that allowed us to play our defense a little more conservatively.”
Ruonavaara's performance drew raves not just from coach Jim Ferris, but from Bears head coach Vicki Malone.
“I think Megan is one of the best pitchers in the state,” Malone said. “What she did right there was lights out. She hit her spots; she got stronger. She plays great defense coming off the mound, throws hard and in command, mixes it in and out. Just perfect.”
It was Rocky Hill’s first state title in softball, something that Ferris said he knew was possible for the team going into the season.
“I knew we had a special team,” said Ferris, who took over for Gil Gioia for just this season after Gioia suffered complications from surgery in February. “Really my concern was with coach getting ill, with any disruption like that, you never know how kids are going to react. You want continuity. So what we did was try to keep things the same and keep things running smoothly.”
Malone, for her part, was quick to put the season - a 23-2 record, undefeated in the NCCC, a league regular-season and tournament title - in perspective.
“I’m very proud of them,” Malone said. “We had a great season. They should hold their heads high, but we came up a little bit short. Granby softball is here to stay.”