They started the season there and ended there.
It took Masuk five weeks and a second straight Class L championship to get back to the top of pile, but a 26-1 record was enough for the Panthers to claim the No. 1 spot in the GameTimeCT Top 10 Poll for a second straight time at year’s end.
The Panthers — who began the season at No. 1 — have amassed a 53-1 record over the past two seasons, collecting a pair of SWC and state titles. Masuk fell to No. 2 after losing to St. Joseph on May 4 and stayed there until now.
This year’s status at No. 1 had to be fully earned, however.
The Panthers were tested often in the Class L tournament, first being pushed to the limit in a 5-3 win over Bristol Eastern in the quarterfinals. Then came North Haven and Lauren Card, who the Panthers fended off 8-4 thanks to their blistering speed and several Indians mistakes.
“Our focus went up by 10 levels,” Masuk senior Gretchen Bunovsky said. “It was just like: it’s chapter three of our season, we have to make sure this is when we’re playing our best softball. … It’s crazy, it feels amazing, I’m so glad we’ve had a great team the past two years.”
The Panthers then encountered East Haven in the final, the only team to defeat St. Joseph at this season. Masuk had to be patient against the Yellow Jackets, as a pitcher’s duel emerged between Sam Schiebe and Tori Heaphy. Masuk finally broke through with two runs in the sixth to secure the title, though.
“We talked about when we lost to St. Joes, that our record means nothing,” Panthers coach Leigh Barone said. “Going undefeated last year, they did something with it. But knowing we had one loss this year, it didn’t matter. It almost made us more prepared. We knew East Haven was 11-9; your record doesn’t matter.”
This came after rolling to a third straight SWC title. The graduating class of seniors will leave with six total final appearances out of a possible eight between league and state. Masuk lost to Fitch back in 2016 with Schiebe in the circle as a freshman.
“This feels amazing, especially for our four seniors,” Barone said. “This year the team camaraderie was just amazing. They wanted it for not just themselves but for everyone on the team. This year I remember them having countdowns until the season started, because they were so excited.”
The seniors who are departing will leave a significant void. Leadoff hitter Meg McFarland batted close to .500 and played stellar defense in center; Bunovsky, the No. 3 hitter, will play at Yale and Schiebe wrote her name into school history over the past two years.
Junior Maddie Procyk will likely get her chance as full-time starter next year for the Panthers after splitting time with Schiebe over the last two. Masuk could start 2020 as the team to beat once again.
“Obviously we’re going to miss two pitchers to choose from, but you never know what comes our way next year either,” Barone said. “I’m very excited for Maddie to have this opportunity now as well.”
Class LL champion Southington moved to its highest ranking of the season at No. 2. The Blue Knights defeated NFA, which lept into the No. 3 spot thanks to the 7-6 loss in the final round, and wins over South Windsor and Cheshire along the way. Class M champion Waterford — which beat Seymour in the final — jumped all the way into the top five at No. 4. Cheshire finished No. 5 while previous No. 1 St. Joseph, Trumbull, East Haven, South Windsor and North Haven rounded out the top 10.