By KYLE BRENNAN
The buzz around a group of youth softball players in Beacon Falls and Prospect was audible starting in 2015 was undeniable. Two years later, longtime Woodland softball coach Loren Luddy decided to get a look at the Valley Fusion girls for herself.
“They were fun to watch and they had a good time playing,” Luddy said of the then-middle schoolers. “I knew Kim Gallo from when I coached her in Naugatuck, and I knew how good she was, and I knew her dad [Pete Calandro] coached her way back, so I knew they were well-coached. I bought into the hype right away.”
Some groups don’t live up to the hype. A state championship five years later validated that hype.
It all started in 2015 with the Valley Fusion 10U squad, whose roster looks awfully familiar now: Riley Kane, Kylie Bulinski, Cassidy Doiron, Rory Nolan and Samantha Sosnovich composed half of the 11-player squad.
Head coach Kelly Kane had help from a few dads — Bob Bulinski, Chris Doiron and Rich Sosnovich — and she convinced her own dad, Calandro, to join the coaching staff.
Calandro took the lead in running practice drills.
“We told them from the get-go, ‘You’re going be doing drills that 16-year-olds would do. I don’t care that you’re 10. I don’t ever want to hear that you can’t do it,’” Calandro recalled. “We threw ground balls to everybody, threw fly balls to everybody. We never used a bat; we wanted quantity with quality.”
The result was a season in which Fusion racked up a 54-4 record with eight tournament championships, including the USA Softball A 10U Eastern Nationals title at DeLuca Field in Stratford.
“My strongest memory that we had is all of the team bonding,” said catcher Kylie Bulinski, who played the final two games of the tournament with two broken fingers. “We lost earlier in the tournament and we had to come back from the loser’s bracket, which meant we all needed to be focus to get us to the end.”
That was also the start of the group’s musical superstition. During this year’s state championship run, the familiar pump-up tune was “Cotton Eye Joe” by Rednex; that summer, it was “Wagon Wheel” by Darius Rucker.
“We all got into a line and held onto each other’s shoulders and danced to it in the outfield to get us loose,” said pitcher Riley Kane. “After that, it was like our team song and good-luck charm for years to come.”
Sosnovich, a year younger than most of her teammates, saw playing up as a necessary challenge.
“I always looked up to them when I was younger, and always felt like I needed to keep up with everyone,” Sosnovich said. “That is why I always played up age-wise.”
When the group moved up to the 12U level, they added a sixth future state champion, Isabella Kraemer. That squad went 55-5 in 2016, which further stoked hopes for their debut in black and gold in 2019.
“That’s why we had such expectations when they got to high school,” Calandro said. “I thought we’d win at least two [state championships] before COVID happened. I thought we would do well the first year, but then we had some injuries. The second year was going to be a shot to get to the [state] semifinals, but then we had COVID.”
Kane twirled back-to-back no-hitters in the first two games of her Woodland career. That might have happened thanks to her comfort with the players around her.
“The chemistry and relationships I’ve had with the core group of girls for my softball career is super strong,” Kane said. “I’ve been playing with most of them since I was about 8, and over time our bond just became closer. At the high school level, it was really nice to already have that connection and know each other on and off the field, so it made us tighter as a team knowing each other inside and out. We knew how to be there for each other, pick each other up when we needed to, and feed off of each other’s energy.”
It wasn’t a bad year in 2019: The Hawks went 14-8 but lost their first-round matchups in both the Naugatuck Valley League and Class M state tournaments. A silver lining was the program’s first trip to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World, a trip Luddy said she’d never considered until this group came around.
“There aren’t a lot of teams that you can get excited about taking out of state, but I knew this crew would be great because I knew they had fun with each other and I knew they’d prioritize softball,” Luddy said.
With almost the entire team returning for 2020, Luddy remembered how excited the team was—and then how it all came crashing down with the pandemic struck.
“They were motivated and they played great that summer [in 2019],” Luddy said. “Losing that season was heartbreaking.”
Woodland set its sights on a state championship in 2021, and the Hawks came two games shy of a perfect season when they suffered an upset loss to North Branford in the Class M semifinals. Luddy remembered how the team’s vibe changed from the 2021 preseason to the 2022 preseason.
“[Entering 2021], they were excited-ready,” Luddy said. “[This] year, they were angry-motivated — angry, we-need-to-get-this-done motivation.”
“I knew we had all the right pieces and talent to win the title,” Sosnovich said.
The Hawks cruised to their second straight NVL title this spring, and after beating Wolcott in the Class M quarterfinals, Calandro did something he’d never done in his half-century coaching career.
“I told these kids the week before we won [the state championship] that we were going to win,” Calandro said. “I guaranteed it — I’d never done that in my career, and I’ve been coaching for 50 years. I was so confident with this group. They’d come so far and they were so good.”
He was right. On the same DeLuca Field at which Valley Fusion won its 10U national championship seven years prior, five of those girls led Woodland to its first softball state championship — and there was no coincidence in the relationship between those two titles.
“Playing with the core group over many years, we all became best friends,” Bulinski said. “We have spent so much time together, going from tournaments to tournaments, that we became very close. Those girls became my sisters. Being so close with them only helped us on the field because we knew what each other was doing. The team chemistry that we had built up over the years led us to win the NVL championship, the state championship and an undefeated season.”
This is one piece of a five-part series looking back at the Woodland softball team’s 2022 Class M state championship. Stories include the team members’ opinions on the squad’s legacy; the team’s connection to the 2015 Valley Fusion 10U national championship team; head coach Loren Luddy’s two-decade career at Woodland; the grandfather-granddaughter bond between assistant coach Pete Calandro and pitcher Riley Kane; and Kyle Brennan’s column on Kylie Bulinski establishing herself as the best female athlete in school history.