In coaching travel softball with the Cheshire Wildcats program this summer, Brian Perlini felt it was important for his 14-U 05 team to play up against older competition.
“My kids are going to be sophomores in high school this year,” said Perlini, whose daughter Amelia plays for the Wildcats. “If you want to play varsity, you are going to face 18-year-old pitching and need to be prepared for that.”
That philosophy paid off in a big way last week at Windsor’s Fastpitch Nation Park. Entering the United States Specialty Sports Association 16-U National Championship Tournament as the youngest team in the field, Cheshire rose to the challenge to win all of its nine games and bring home the title.
The tournament, held July 30 to Aug. 2, featured teams from Connecticut as well as states like New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania.
“It feels great,” said Amelia Perlini, of celebrating the national title. “We expected to be in the top 12, but didn’t think we would win the whole thing.”
The Wildcats picked up two victories each on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday to earn the third seed for the final day.
“Our goal was make it to bracket play on Sunday because it is single elimination,” said Coach Perlini. “I thought we would play well because we were running on all cylinders.”
The Wildcats felt that the pool-play games allowed them to build momentum.
“There were games where we were behind and and had to come back to win in the last inning,” stated Kyla Kampf. "That was a confidence booster.”
On Sunday, Cheshire rode the pitching of Sofia Gugliotti to a 2-0 shutout of the Smithfield Storm from Rhode Island.
In the semifinals, the Wildcats overcame adversity to pull out a 6-5 victory over Connecticut Bombers Black. The Wildcats jumped ahead 2-0, but the Bombers rallied to score four runs to take the lead before a rain delay suspended play for over an hour.
“The rain delay definitely helped our team,” recalled Kampf. “We went to our cars and listened to music to hype us up. The other team packed up their stuff, while we left our equipment in the dugout. I thought we were 10 times more ready coming back.”
Cheshire returned with a vengeance, scoring four times in the fourth inning to take a 6-4 advantage.
“I feel that our strength is when someone gets a hit, we get excited for them,” explained Kampf. “We use that energy and try to win.”
The Wildcats still had to hold off a rally in the semifinals. In the seventh inning, the Bombers put runners on second and third base with nobody out, but Wildcats left fielder Kailey Laird, a Bristol resident, caught a fly ball and threw to third to earn a double play.
The Bombers scored on the sacrifice fly to cut the deficit to 6-5, but the Wildcats induced a fly out to clinch the victory.
“The double play was huge for us,” reflected Coach Perlini. “We were very nervous that we were going to give the lead back to them.”
“We were all under pressure, but stayed together and it came out good for us,” explained Amelia Perlini.
After battling to make the finals, Cheshire excelled in a 5-0 win over Connecticut Bombers White. Gugliotti went the distance in pitching another shutout.
“I think deep down I was nervous, but told myself that I wasn’t to stay cool and collected on the mound,” explained Gugliotti. “I have to thank my teammates. They really helped me with preventing the other team from scoring.”
“They (the Bombers) are a good hitting team and she shut them down,” added Coach Perlini.
Gugliotti was named tournament MVP. As a team, the Wildcats received championship rings.
“That was a great,” said Amelia Perlini. “I was expecting a medal, but the ring was cooler.”
Gugliotti and Meriden’s Emily Hart anchored the pitching staff at Nationals. Hart also joined Kampf and Amelia Perlini as top hitters.
“This is a dedicated team,” stated Coach Perlini. “We are strong one through 11. At some point in the tournament, every one of these girls stepped up for us.”
While the Wildcats are based in Cheshire, the program welcomes girls to play from other towns.
“It’s a great thing,” said Coach Perlini. “When the girls go to their respective high schools, it is nice to see them compete against each other. They are all very close friends.”
Gugliotti, Elizabeth Francisco, Mayci Abou Arrage, and Mimi Riley joined the Cheshire team this year after their coach left the Wolcott Eagles.
“We knew that the Wildcats was a great organization, so I came over with my three friends,” explained Gugliotti. “The coaches and girls were very welcoming.”
The Wildcats were happy to play together after the coronavirus pandemic wiped out their spring high school season. During the summer, the girls and coaches followed guidelines such as wearing masks and social distancing.
“We didn’t know if we would have a season after we spent money on uniforms and equipment,” reflected Coach Perlini. “To have the season end in a bracket tournament was awesome. They (the girls) worked hard to get there.”
John Hart, Josh Kampf, and Tom Juodaitis coached with Perlini. Former Cheshire standout shortstop Mia Juodaitis helped out during winter workouts.
“We don’t win Nationals without them,” said Coach Perlini. “All of the coaches bring something different to the team.”
As a 15-U team next year, the Wildcats plan to play up in 18-U tournaments.