Lions split tourney softball games

The future success of the Foran High girls softball team appeared as bright and clear as the afternoon sky on June 2, after coach Jeff Bevino’s 18th-seeded Lions downed Joel Barlow of Redding, the host and 15th-seed, 6-0, behind the no-hit, 18-strikeout pitching performance of senior Jess Harkness.

Foran’s left-handed ace looked like she’d returned to a form that she had carried into the past two Class L state championship finals for the Lions (12-9).

She was on fire against the Falcons (12-9). Her fastball and rise pitches were simply untouchable. It was only her third appearance since an early-season injury, a hip flexor problem, had sidelined her.

Harkness was in command as her team advanced to a second-round and highly-anticipated matchup against Torrington High (19-0), the number two seed, and its top-flight pitcher, another southpaw, Sydney Matzko, a career 1,000-strikeout pitcher who’ll be hurling for the University of North Carolina next spring.

For three innings, on a humid afternoon in Torrington, Harkness looked exactly like the pitcher of old. She struck out the first two batters she faced, Brittany Anderson and Nicole Jamieson, walked Marissa Morris and Matzko, before fanning Sam Pelow swinging to end her opening inning of work.

But in a fateful fifth, Harkness began to falter. Before the frame was through, she’d walked five more batters, thrown two wild pitches and given up her first hit. Torrington grabbed a 5-0 lead en route to a 7-3 victory.

The scene was almost surreal in nature. It was a sad ending in a career that included a 51-14 record, in which she’d pitched 436 innings and struck out 588 batters in the process. Bevino replaced Harkness with Ashley Mendillo, a starting replacement for Harkness since early in the season and the Lions pieced together a mini-rally in the seventh, highlighted by Mandi Mendillo’s two-run homer.

“For four innings today, Jess was spot-on,” Bevino said afterward after sharing an embrace with his daughter, Fallon, the other senior on the team.

“She couldn’t have been better. Then she ran out of gas. She threw so many pitches against Barlow. Her body might’ve let her down, but her heart is as strong as it comes.

“I wanted to let her stay in for that inning. I didn’t want to take her out part-way through. She didn’t deserve that.”

The Red Raiders tacked on two additional runs off of Mendillo on a pair of singles – by Pelow and Sara Heath – and a two-run double by Alexa Potter.

Up until the seventh, Foran had stratched out five hits against Matzko, a tall left-handed pitcher with wicked speed and great movement on her pitches.

Fallon Bevino had the last of her hits in a career, where she batted at a .575 clip, in the first after Matzko had K’d both Dani Kemp leading off and Amanda Portoff. But Ashley Mendillo went down swinging to end any chance of a threat.

Kemp had a two-out single in the third, her first of two base hits, and she promptly stole second. Matzko then dug in and got the inning-ending strikeout.

Ashley Mendillo reached on a one-out hit in the fourth. She was caught stealing second and another Matzko strikeout, this one on Kayla Gosselin, closed out another chance.

The Lions threatened again in the sixth, getting runners to second and third on consecutive singles by Mandi Mendillo. Portoff moved both runners up with a sacrifice. Once again, however, the Lions couldn’t score. Fallon Bevino hit a line drive that was snared by Torrington first baseman Heath, and Ashley Mendillo became Matzko’s 10th of 11 strike-out victims.

“She’s as good as they come,” Bevino said about Matzko. “I had a chance to see her pitch before today (in Torrington’s Naugatuck Valley League playoff championship game, a 2-1 loss to Seymour). She’s as good as advertised. She limits a team’s chances.”

Foran got to Matzko in the seventh, and the Lions did it all after two were out.

Jenna Zacarelli doubled to right-center and was chased home on Hannah DeSousa’s single up the middle.

DeSousa went to second on the unsuccessful throw to the plate. Mandi Mendillo followed with a long drive to right-center which rolled in the gap.

Mendillo was rounding second and was halfway to third when right fielder Brittany Young got the ball back in. On the play, however, Torrington’s second-baseman, Jamieson, twisted her ankle while trying to step from the infield dirt to the outfield grass. She fell down and the ball was never picked up.

Kemp stepped to the plate as Foran looked to keep the inning going. Matzko’s first pitch to her was popped up and Pelow, who was moved to second as Jamieson’s replacement, made the game-ending catch.