WEST HAVEN >> Watching the Hale Ray softball team warm-up prior to their CIAC Class S semifinal softball battle against Thomaston Wednesday night, I was reminded again what the late Ed Hidek told me years ago.
Hidek, who guided Morgan to four Class M state titles, believed that the Shoreline Conference was the best small conference in New England for softball and that winning the league’s annual tournament was often harder than capturing the state crown.
Sure enough, here were the Noises.
After going 10-10 during the regular season and losing to Haddam-Killingworth in the SLC quarterfinals, Hale Ray made a spirited tournament run before falling one game short of their 11th state finals appearance.
Thomaston, the defending state champions, defeated the Noises, 14-4, in front of a huge crowd at West Haven High School’s Biondi Field. The No. 2 Golden Bears (23-0) will meet No. 5 Holy Cross in the finals on Saturday.
“I feel badly for my team because I know how far they’ve come,” Hale Ray coach Suzy Miner. “I know what kind of softball players they are and I don’t think the score reflects what a good team they are.”
The game featured some early fireworks from both teams. The Golden Bears grabbed a 3-1 lead in the first inning on the strength of a Hale Ray infield error, a booming triple from winning pitcher Morgan Sanson, and a sacrifice fly from Jensyn Cleveland.
The No. 22 Noises (13-12) answered in the top of the third. Emily Traceski laced an RBI double along the left field line and Aidan Fiala drilled a two-run double to the fence in left centerfield to give Hale Ray a 4-3 lead.
Thomaston then showed why they will be playing in their second straight state championship game. The Golden Bears flexed their muscles in the bottom of the fifth, sending 14 batters to the plate while scoring 10 runs. Highlights included RBI hits from Cleveland, Samantha Brostek, Danielle Genest and Alexa Milius, who blasted a bases clearing double, and another RBI triple from Sanson.
“We had one bad inning,” Miner explained. “It was just a situation where we couldn’t get that third out. Not to take anything away from Thomaston. They’re certainly a good hitting team and they took advantage of everything, which is exactly what good teams do.”
Sanson, a junior lefthander, blanked Hale Ray over the last four innings while allowing no hits.
“Morgan gets better as the game goes on,” Thomaston coach Kelly Finlay said. “As soon as we got a couple of runs and a little momentum, she was throwing the ball ridiculously well. It feels great to be back in the finals again. We’ve been taking it one game at a time and now that we’ve actually got there it just goes to show how hard these girls work. They never give up.”
Cailey Botteon had two hits and two runs scored, while Traceski, the Noises lone senior, made some spectacular defensive plays at third base.
“We’re sorely going to miss Emily … she’s fantastic,” Miner added.
There were a lot of growing pains early this season for Hale Ray but, led by Traceski, and juniors Botteon, Nicole Dombroski and pitcher Leah Brownell, they found their stride in tournament victories over Notre Dame-Fairfield, Lyman Memorial and Old Saybrook.
You could say the Noises were flying under the radar.
“I don’t mind floating in under the radar,” Miner said. “That is perfectly fine with me, especially with a young team like this. There’s always pressure to be really successful in this program and to always win. And so that’s why I don’t mind coming in a little bit as a surprise this year. I didn’t want them to feel that (pressure) all season long.”
Hidek, of course, was talking about the years from 1993 to 2006. Fourteen consecutive seasons in which a SLC team won a state championship, including three years when the league fielded two state champions: Morgan in Class M and Coginchaug or Hale Ray in Class S.
The league’s coaches were legendary figures. There was the late Bill Healey at Coginchaug, Ron Jubinville and then Jeff Talbott at Haddam-Killingworth, John McGuirk at North Branford, and the late Joe Camarota at Valley Regional.
And there was Lou Milardo at Hale Ray. When Milardo, who founded the Noises program, retired in 2006 he was the state’s all-time winningest coach with 552 career victories (East Lyme’s Judy Deeb became the all-time leader in 2013).
Milardo built Hale Ray into a Shoreline power. He guided the Noises to four Class S state titles and it could have been a lot more.
Hale Ray met SLC rival Coginchaug five times in epic state championship games with the Blue Devils winning four. All but one was decided by a single run, including a 2-1 Blue Devils win in 2002 that went nine innings and a 1-0 Coginchaug victory in 1998 that went 16 innings. That marathon affair was the day Hale Ray pitcher Susie Gobelle pitched a perfect game from the ninth to the 15th inning. It ended when Michelle Morettini hit a sacrifice fly to left that scored winning pitcher Sarah Arrigoni.
Miner played for Milardo and was the perfect choice to replace her legendary mentor and continue Hale Ray’s winning tradition.
“You see a lot of the alumnae come back and Lou comes back and supports us,” said Miner, who led the Noises to their fifth Class S title in 2011. “It’s a great family atmosphere here with returning players and alumnae. The girls on the team respect that and they’re proud to be a part of that. We get tons of fans to our games. It’s a really great environment to play softball in.”
Miner’s club made a lot of a noise this postseason, proudly carrying the Shoreline Conference banner again. They were a few outs away from another state title appearance while giving a real good Thomaston team all it could handle early in the contest.
“We are better than what the score shows,” Miner said. “I’m super proud of how far they’ve come in such a short period of time.”
Next season can’t come fast enough for softball fans in Moodus.
“One of the things we talked about, especially in the last couple of weeks is we’re just going to take care of our side of the field,” Miner said. “It doesn’t matter who we play against, if we play our game the right way we’re more than likely to be successful.”