NORWALK — Elaine Gratrix said the players on the Norwalk High School softball team are unfamiliar with her own background in the sport, how her motivation as a coach is to help them achieve the same accomplishment she made as a player 30 years ago.
Next month will be the diamond anniversary of when Gratrix pitched Trumbull to the FCIAC championship with a 7-5 win over a then consolidated Fairfield High School team. The Eagles’ win was an interruption to the ending of a reign when Norwalk was the league’s dominant team. The Bears would win three of the next four conference titles, giving them nine in 14 years.
“We were always really pumped to play them and beat them because it was great,” Gratrix recalled. “That’s what you would shoot for because they were the program.”
The Bears have since won the league crown two more times, but the last was in 2003. It has been 12 years since their most recent appearance in the final.
And while the first two weeks of this season do no present enough body of work for asserting that the Bears are on an inevitable run toward past glory, at the same time, with a 6-0 start, and as the surprise team in the league — well, outside their own clubhouse — it is not premature for the comparisons to begin.
“Pretty much the whole team returned and we didn’t make it too far last year, so nobody thought we would make it too far this year,” said Katie Sciglimpaglia, the junior shortstop who sat out last season with a torn ACL. “We came back with a different mindset and work hard to make it farther.”
The Bears finished 8-13 a year ago, losing nine of their final 10 games, including a 14-1 decision to Westhill in the state playoffs.
“I think we underperformed last year a little bit,” said Gratrix, who has been on the Bears’ coaching staff for 20 years, the last seven in the head position. “I don’t think we have any outrageous expectations for ourselves. We knew we could compete.”
Norwalk has done more than that. It is currently tied with Stamford for the best record in the league. Only two other schools have not lost in league play. Ironically, one of them is Westhill, the Bears’ opponent this afternoon in a measuring-stick game.
“Pretty much the whole team returned and we didn’t make it too far last year, so nobody thought we would make it too far this year. We came back with a different mindset and work hard to make it farther.”
— Norwalk shortstop Katie Sciglimpaglia
“This year we are expecting to win,” Sciglimpaglia said of today’s rematch. “That would help us even more. Our confidence would go up even more and we’d believe we can beat any team in the league if we can beat Westhill.”
Gratrix said optimism has permeated the locker room from the first day of practice.
“I think we’ve been confident since the beginning,” Gratrix said. “Each win helps boost it a little more. In the beginning we knew what we had. I don’t think anyone is surprised that we’re here.”
Gratrix said the reasons for the fast start are simple. The Bears are not overwhelming in any area, but there are also no exploitable weaknesses. Victory is a collaborative effort.
“We just kind of do our thing,” Gratrix said. “We are not a powerhouse in any one way so I guess we just kind of play a balanced game. We play defense. We play one base at a time. I guess we’re not really known for one thing and that’s maybe why we fly under the radar. The juniors as a whole have really stepped up this year.”
Catcher Sam Troetti is the lone senior on the roster. Brianny Garcia has made great strides in her second year as the team’s starting pitcher. It helps to have a coach who knows the position.
“Brianny done a good job and is only a sophomore,” Gratrix said. “She learned a lot from last year’s experience and came in determined to improve on that. We had some difficult moments last year and we had some resolve to not do that again.”
Sciglimpaglia has boosted an offense that has scored 77 runs. And the Bears even have a link to their past. One of their catalysts is Skyler Suda. She is the daughter of Michelle Palmer Suda, among the best players in school history, who went on to star at Sacred Heart University. She also has a second daughter on the roster.
“We could definitely hit,” Sciglimpaglia said about last season. “We can hit this year. Our defense could have been cleaned up and that’s what we’ve done this year. We all wanted to go far. We all have May 19 circled on our calendars for FCIACs.”
Nearly half of Norwalk’s roster is made up of freshmen and sophomores, which also bodes well for the long term.
“Every year we just try to be the best with what we have,” Gratrix said. “We do have a lot of good freshmen this year, and the last couple of years we have. Our feeder programs are doing a good job and our parents are doing a good job working with them in the offseason. We are grateful for the support we are receiving.”
In recent days, Norwalk has entered the discussion when opposing coaches break down the league.
If the Bears were to capture the FCIAC title, Gratrix would join New Canaan’s Danielle Simoneau, who four years ago became the first person to win one both as a player and head coach.
Gratrix is keeping her players on an even keel. She is well aware the season is long and the number of serious contenders deep.
“We really concentrate on our dugout and what we are doing and playing at our highest level,” Gratrix said. “That’s really all we can control.”