STAMFORD — Gabby Laccona’s arrival at Westhill High School four years ago was in many respects rather typical — if you are an elite athlete who has earned distinction and created a buzz at the youth level.
Laccona was trumpeted as the next great player in the Vikings’ rich softball history. It is a burden to put on a freshman, and Laccona said she was oblivious to the hype.
Westhill coach Tom Pia, who had invited Laccona to some practices while she was still in middle school, had elephant ears.
“Gabby came to Westhill with so much pressure on her from all the adults in the Babe Ruth league saying she’s a superstar,” Pia recalled.
Laccona said all stress was self-induced.
“I didn’t know that parents were talking but I did feel pressure as a starter,” Laccona said. “You have to fill these huge footsteps. I didn’t feel pressure in the field but I did at bat, taking the third spot in the lineup. I always felt comfortable in the field.”
Laccona plays her last regular season game today having realized and surpassed the hype that has befallen others at all levels of sports. Starting Friday the postseason begins, and the Westhill shortstop will try and help fill the only voids on her resume: league and state championships.
“In the middle of the season last year she started to relax and became the player…she’s got to be the best fielder in the state of Connecticut right now,” Pia said. “Without a doubt. She’s unbelievable.”
Laccona’s numbers this year are an accurate measure of her worth. She is batting .571, with 7 home runs and 17 RBIs — as a leadoff hitter who is often pitched around by opposing coaches. She has a .628 on-base percentage, has scored 22 runs and stolen 16 bases. She is arguably the FCIAC’s most valuable player, one reason the Vikings have clinched the regular season title and top seed in the FCIAC Tournament, with a 17-2 record heading into today’s non-league game against Seymour.
Last week Laccona was named this year’s winner of the Allyson Rioux award, given to the city of Stamford’s top senior female athlete. The Vikings’ field is named after Rioux, and those who know both said there is commonality in many qualities.
“She may be the most competitive person I’ve ever coached,” Pia said. “It’s her competitiveness but it’s a quiet self confidence. She has an ego but she doesn’t show it. And she’s not disrespectful to anybody. It doesn’t matter their skill level, she treats everyone the same.”
Laccona is the sixth straight player from Westhill to win the award (there have been several co-honorees). Past recipients include some of the best softball players in the city’s history: Emily Robustelli, Beth Haas and Melissa Giordano.
“Growing up in Stamford you hear a lot about Allyson Rioux and what a great player she was,” Laccona said. “I already knew a lot about her before the interview. “I guess I showed the board I was a lot like Allyson, which means a lot to me.”
Photos of Laccona in action reveal a fierce intensity. Her work at the plate has caught up with her sure glove and throwing arm.
“I feel like batting is more mechanical,” Laccona said. “In the field you just field the ball. I worked very hard at it. I never had a problem with fielding. Hitting I always struggled with my freshman year. I worked hard at it every day. I stayed after practice and worked on hitting different pitches. I changed my swing five times probably. A lot went into it.”
Last summer Laccona’s travel team played the Stratford Brakettes, and she made enough of an impression to be asked to join them for the remainder of the season. Laccona also impressed Boston University coach Ashley Waters, who had been recruiting her. Waters attended a game and after offered her a spot on the roster.
Laccona later opted to attend Ithaca, where three recent Westhill graduates played, including Allison Macari, who graduated Westhill in 2012 and has served as a role model. Pia said he compared the two players favorably to the Ithaca coaching staff.
“Gabby was lucky to be around her and I told her to emulate Allison, and that’s exactly what she does,” Pia said. “She is Allison to a T.”
Laccona said chapter one of her senior season has played out better than she had hoped.
“It’s been really special,” she said. “I’m glad to make statements my senior year, the whole team has been making statements. I don’t think we were ranked coming into the season. The newspapers didn’t pay a lot of attention to us. That’s what it felt like. To be doing as well as we are with such a young team is really special. We have come a long way.”
So has Laccona, who in a few weeks will start transitioning to the next challenge.
“I’m so excited about Ithaca,” Laccona said. “They are excited for me too which is so nice. It is great to know they are so welcoming.”