West Haven - Jeff Mauri was the new coach of the St. Bernard School softball team four years ago when saw Melissa Halloran play for the first time.
"I said, 'Well, she's starting in one of the middle infield positions,'" Mauri said.
Four years later the Class of 2012, which graduated May 29, spent the final day as a part of the team competing for the Class S state championship Friday at West Haven High School. There was Halloran, the shortstop; Tara Kowalski, the first baseman; and fellow senior and starting pitcher Rivkah Berkman, who joined the team a year ago.
The players met at 2 p.m. and had lunch together at Subway before traveling to West Haven.
The outcome for the 20th-ranked Saints was a 6-0 loss to No. 2 Coginchaug of Durham, which got a dominant performance from senior left-handed pitcher Lauren Esposito to win the 11th state championship in the storied history of the program.
Esposito, not the every day Coginchaug pitcher, threw a two-hitter with 11 strikeouts for the Blue Devils (23-4) and also added a two-run triple to break the game open in the fourth inning. She was honored as the game's Most Valuable Player.
St. Bernard was making its second appearance in a final, both under Mauri. The Saints lost to Terryville 2-0 in 2010 when Halloran and Kowalski were sophomores.
But the championship game wasn't all that Mauri was thinking about Friday. St. Bernard had an 11-9 regular season, not even qualifying for the eight-team Eastern Connecticut Conference tournament, before rallying for four straight victories in the Class S tournament.
"It was an amazing thing to watch," Mauri said of the transformation. "The fact they were even here was an amazing thing to watch."
The Saints' pregame got off to a bit of a rough start, however. Junior second baseman Mena Buscetto, the No. 3 hitter for St. Bernard (15-10), was warming up pitching in the batting cage when a ball thrown back to her glanced off her glove and hit her in the head. Buscetto is the backup pitcher to Berkman.
The St. Bernard trainer initially ruled that Buscetto would be out for the game and the Saints went to take infield-outfield without her. The Coginchaug trainer was called in to confer and the two of them decided to allow Buscetto to take the field.
"The whole crowd went wild," Halloran said. "… I was trying not to let it get to me (when Buscetto was out), but the infield-outfield usually sets the tone for us."
"The dugout was a mess," Mauri said. "I think the girls were going to pack it in. I don't think it helped; we were going 90 mph."
The game was scoreless until the bottom of the third, when Coginchaug struck for two unearned runs against Berkman, including an RBI single by Marielle Handley. Berkman then got to two outs in the fourth before Esposito tripled to center field to score two more runs, making it 4-0. Kayla Votto followed with an RBI single to make it 5-0.
And that's all the help Esposito (7-1) needed. Coginchaug coach Ann Moscovics said she chose Esposito over Handley (16-3) because she thought pitching a lefty might throw off St. Bernard.
"She handles everything well," Moscovics said of Esposito. "I'm confident in both of them, but Lauren does well under pressure."
"She changed spots and we didn't do a great job laying off the high pitches," Mauri said.
Mauri's eyes were glistening as he left his postgame huddle, calling it "a special year for me," having made sure he left his players with them knowing he was proud of them.
Buscetto and Kowalski had the Saints' only hits, while Buscetto also walked twice, reaching base in all three plate appearances.
"It's been a great experience," Halloran said. "We're a great team. Everyone knows everything about each other. There's only 13 of us (in the entire program), so you can't get much closer than that."