No. 1 debate: Southington softball has not been No. 1 since 2016

Southington coach Davina Hernandez has led her team to five of the last eight Class LL softball titles, including the last two. But the Blue Knights have not been No. 1 in the state poll since 2016.

Southington coach Davina Hernandez has led her team to five of the last eight Class LL softball titles, including the last two. But the Blue Knights have not been No. 1 in the state poll since 2016.

Pete Paguaga / Hearst Connecticut Media

As the schedule passes the midpoint of the 2022 softball season, the debate over the No. 1 team in the state has become increasingly split.

While it may seem odd to consider a defending CIAC Class LL champion and current No. 2 team underrated, former and current members of the Southington softball program can’t help but feel slighted in recent years.

The Southington program has won 19 state titles in its history, including five of the last eight Class LL championships and the most recent two. While Southington has been a mainstay in the GameTimeCT softball poll, the program has not been ranked No. 1 since 2016.

Southington ended the 2021 season with a walk-off 4-3 victory over Fairfield Ludlowe in the Class LL championship game, and finished the year ranked No. 2 behind an undefeated Class L champion Masuk (which won its third state title in a row).

When the preseason poll was released prior to the 2022 campaign, Masuk opened as the favorite with Southington ranked third and Fairfield Ludlowe ranked fifth.

After opening day there was a shift however, as Ludlowe defeated Masuk and was propelled into the No. 1 spot that has alluded Southington since 2016.

“The team we beat in the state championship, they are ahead of us,” Southington coach Davina Hernandez said. “It always just kind of seems to be the norm. It is definitely something that our players have brought to my attention every year.”

Southington fell to No. 4 in the second poll of the year after not playing a game during the first week of the season. A week later after a 4-0 start, Southington moved up to No. 2 where it remains (still behind Ludlowe).

In the most recent poll, some voters have begun shifting their votes for top team in the state toward Southington after it has had little trouble against a handful of college-bound pitchers with an 11-2 win over Glastonbury, 18-4 victory over Hall, a 15-6 defeat of Avon and a 14-1 pummeling of Cheshire.

“That lineup, and I have a Division I pitcher, is unlike any batting lineup I have seen in high school softball,” Glastonbury coach Karen Costes said. “I have coached all three divisions in college, and that team hits like a college team. They are monster hitters.”

This week Southington earned six first-place votes in the poll, doubling its total from the prior week, while No. 1 Ludlowe dropped from 10 first-place votes to seven. Of the 3,570 total points attributed in the poll, Southington currently trails Ludlowe by just six. The poll, run by GameTimeCT, includes 14 voters (10 media, 4 coaches).

This Saturday, Southington will travel to No. 3 Masuk. As part of a new deal between Hernandez and Masuk coach Leigh Barone, this will be the first of a yearly non-conference matchup between the two teams. It also provides Southington a common opponent to Ludlowe.

Masuk competes in Class L. Southington and Ludlowe are both again in Class LL.

“I know Ludlowe has put together a good couple of years, but they have not been a historical perennial powerhouse like Southington,” Costes said. “Southington beat them in the state championship and Ludlowe is number one.”

While some of the preseason justification to drop Southington below Ludlowe was due to its smaller returning class, this year’s team may be even better than its state champion predecessors.

“Coming into this season they did lose a lot of seniors from last year which could be why they were rated a little bit lower,” Hall coach Rebecca Lewis said. “But what they have proven so far this season is that they very much have the depth throughout their roster to be the very best in the state.”

Theories on why Southington has not been able to crack the No. 1 spot in six seasons differ.

“I do feel as though the CCC has been slighted,” Costes said. “I have been at Glastonbury for the last seven years, and I would say for the last three that the conference has become a lot stronger. I feel as though we have the best pitchers in the state.”

While conferences such as the SCC and FCIAC regularly account for the majority of teams in the poll, those involved with the CCC have seen a dramatic increase in skill and competition over the years.

The CCC is broken down into four divisions: North, East, South and West. Southington is a member of the CCC West, which is then broken down further into the Patriot and Colonial divisions.

“A few years back the CCC came together and said you have to play your division games twice,” Hernandez said. “Then you get crossover CCC games, and ever since 2016 all they had teams split into top, mid-level and lower tiers so that it was more balanced.”

The new structure has allowed for the large conference to promote more parity within between competing teams, but while the schedules have gotten more difficult Southington has not slowed down.

“My goal every year is to make sure that we have as strong of a schedule as we possibly can,” Hernandez said. “If you look at our schedule from my first couple years you will see a lot of mercy rules, we were breaking records and we were nationally ranked.

“Our strength of schedule has improved every year,” Hernandez said. “And without a doubt the strongest schedule we have ever had is this year. And I think we have come out very strong.”

This season Hernandez picked up Masuk, Cheshire, Waterford, and RHAM as the four out of conference games Southington is allowed to play.

“Over the years not only have we been winning more,” Hernandez said. “But we have actually had much stronger schedules as well.”

Hernandez is not the only one who has noticed the uptick in the CCC’s competition, and perhaps voters have overlooked the CCC in comparison to others.

“One of my assistant coaches (Kelly Larson) came from the FCIAC and won a state championship with Trumbull (2017),” Costes said. “It is interesting to hear her perspective, and she has really seen how strong the CCC has gotten in the last four and five years.”

The debates over which conferences truly are the most competitive remain open for interpretation.

“I would say the SCC prior to the last three years was probably the strongest conference,” Costes said. “But I do think that there has been a shift and I think Southington deserves the number one spot.”

“I do think the strongest conferences in the state are the FCIAC and the CCC,” Lewis said. “And I think when you look at state tournament records, overall records, and strength of schedule you see teams from those conferences popping up multiple times.”

While the CCC has become more competitive in the eyes of many, that increase in skill has been observed throughout the state, opening the door for more teams to enter the Top 10 conversation. This week Hall was ranked No. 9 and Glastonbury, RHAM and Enfield are among the 15 teams also receiving votes.

“Throughout Connecticut we have seen an extraordinary growth in the sport of softball and the skill we are seeing in a variety of programs,” Lewis said. “If you go back a decade you see there were a few dominant programs and then a major drop off with every other program. Now you see a lot more competitive teams that send players to the next level which can play into these ratings as well.”

For Hernandez and Southington, there is some frustration.

“I know that some conferences are stronger than others, but I know that teams out this way always end up being on the rankings,” Hernandez said. “So, sometimes you wonder what else you need to prove.

“One year we were ranked eighth or ninth in the nation on MaxPreps and we weren’t even ranked No. 1 in Connecticut.” Hernandez said. “We were in the Top 25 a few times during those years.”

The predicament has created a new coaching challenge for Hernandez, turning frustration into motivation.

“I don’t think it has been intentional,” Hernandez said. “I just think that we are a team that takes pride in getting better every single day, and it is something we focus on a lot in our program. I do think we have surprised people some years with how we finished. I just think not everyone is there to see that growth and how much better we get throughout the season every year. Sometimes those rankings motivate us and fuel us to show people that we do deserve the recognition of being No. 1. But if we don’t get it, we don’t let it hold us back or upset us. We just let it motivate us to earn that recognition.”

Will.Aldam@hearstmediact.com; @AldamWill