Pictured: Middletown coach Sal Morello and the Blue Dragons during a sixth-inning mound conference in Friday’s Class LL quarterfinal game.

By Paul Augeri
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

MIDDLETOWN – Winning 21 games. Playing for the championship of the Central Connecticut Conference. And surrendering just a single run to the defending champs of the Class LL tournament.

“I told these kids, if someone were to tell me before the season that we’d do all of that, I’d sign up for it all day,” Middletown coach Sal Morello said.

Taken together, it was the Blue Dragons’ best softball season in this century.

Angelina Vartuli took over the role as ace and won 21 games this season. “Her work ethic year-round was incredible and really should be an example to our younger players,” coach Sal Morello said.

The No. 2 seed’s 24-game campaign — anchored by seven underclassmen and senior pitcher Angelina Vartuli, the cornerstone of the squad — ended with a 1-0 loss to Fairfield Ludlowe in the Class LL quarterfinals Friday at Lu Gecewicz Field.

Middletown has won just one state title (1992) in softball and only once before in the 2000s had a MHS team reached the quarterfinal stage of the postseason.

But with so many good young players and more on the way from Beman Middle School, the belief now is that the Blue Dragons will be in this same spot in the years to come.

“This was one of my favorite teams. Just gritty. Nothing was easy for us. They had to work,” Morello said. “Angelina gave us a shot every game against anybody. We just ran up against a really good pitcher today and we maybe figured her out a little too late.”

No. 7 seed Ludlowe scored a second-inning run with two out and it held up behind right-hander Alex Lewey. The crafty senior’s assortment of good stuff left Middletown mystified in the batter’s box as she allowed just one hit and struck out 11, positioning the Falcons within two steps of winning a second straight title.

“Alex is never going to blow you away with her speed and she never has,” Falcons coach Adam Laliberte said. “Oftentimes I hear comments that she is overrated and doesn’t throw that hard. I didn’t hear that today, but those are some of the comments I’ve heard in the past.

“The kid hits her spots. She spins the ball. She does not give up a lot of solid contact. She gets a lot of strikeouts, and the other part is she’s so gritty. She’s a warrior. She only really got into one jam today. She is so calm under pressure and she handles herself so well.”

Meanwhile, Vartuli did not have her best command, but she settled in after the Falcons (21-5) established the lead, allowing only four singles — two didn’t leave the infield — the rest of the way. She walked four and struck out six.

“Give their pitcher credit,” Laliberte said. “I thought she hunkered down and did a really nice job.”

Alex Lewey took a perfect game into the fifth and finished with a 1-hitter for Fairfield Ludlowe.

After failing to score with a runner on third and one out in the first, Fairfield Ludlowe broke through in the second inning.

Vartuli recorded two quick outs before walking Lauren Santa Barbara, who stole second, and Alexa Mills. Sophomore Angie Tavella, the team’s No. 9 hitter, drove a 1-1 pitch to right-center that fell in front of center fielder Katie Coggshall.

Santa Barbara scored easily.

“Angie being the sweetest person on the team, she really deserved to get that hit,” said Lewey. “We all worked hard in practice yesterday off the pitching machine, and Angie was one of the people who stayed later and worked extra hard. And it paid off.

“The past few I’ve been struggling a little bit in the box,” said Tavella, “but I really wanted to be there and try to clutch up for my team.”

Vartuli shut down the Falcons with runners on second and third when she struck out Gina Solow with a change-up to end the inning.

Lewey carried a perfect game into the fifth inning. She was consistently ahead in counts and worked a spin ball that left the Blue Dragons flailing at times. Lewey struck out seven of the first nine MHS batters.

“I’ve been working a lot near the end of the (regular) season with a lot of my spins, more than velocity,” she said. “I think that carried me through the game. We had a little rough patch in the (fifth). They were catching my curveballs, but I still got a couple of pop outs, which came from my spin. All of my pitches have an up-spin, so I get a lot of outs with pop ups, rarely ever any ground balls or line drives.”

Middletown’s best opportunity to score came in the fifth after Lewey got two outs. Vartuli lined a single to left field, one of the few gard-hit balls off Lewey, and freshman Peyton Morello, who had three hits in Middletown’s second-round win over Westhill, walked.

Kalia Daniels followed with a first-pitch sharp grounder toward the hole between third and short, but Solow fielded it cleanly and fired to Tavella at first for the third out.

Mikayla Gaboury reached on an error to lead off Middletown’s half of the sixth, but Lewey rung up two strikeouts and freshman Kyleigh Franklin fouled out to end the inning.

Fairfield Ludlowe had a runner in scoring position in each of its last two at-bats, but Middletown flashed its leather to keep it a one-run game.

In the sixth, Morello snared a hard grounder down the line and slapped the third-base bag for the inning-ending force. In the seventh, shortstop Franklin did the same at the bag at second for the second out of the inning, while Vartuli knocked down a liner and threw to first for the final out.

Lewey retired the side in order in the seventh. Her defense was lock-tight from start to finish.

“You try to do as much prep work as you can for two teams that are pretty far apart (geographically) and don’t have common opponents either,” said Laliberte, whose Falcons have won four consecutive Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference titles. “There’s a lot of guesswork you do. I expected a low-scoring, tight game for sure.”

The Falcons will play either Trumbull or Ridgefield, both an FCIAC peer, in the semifinals.

MORE FROM MORELLO

On Vartuli’s contributions to the program: “We gotta score, but every time going out there in these 24 games we knew we had a chance because of her.”

On Vartuli earning her place as senior ace: “I’m telling everybody and I’m not shy about saying it, but two years ago at the end of her sophomore year, she was an average JV pitcher. Her work ethic year-round was incredible and really should be an example to our younger players — if you want to be good, you’ve got to really work at it. Angelina is a tremendous example of that. She worked herself into a terrific pitcher, an All-Stater, and it’s all because of her work.”

On Middletown’s approach against Lewey: “It’s not that she was overpowering. We got a little undisciplined and started chasing pitches a little bit out of the zone. You get a team with a good pitcher like that, hopefully we just learn from it. You have to let her come down a little bit in the zone. We chased a little bit too much. A good pitcher like that, you can’t give her strikes. In the fifth inning we started making contact. We settled in, but we never really had great contact. We never truly had The Hit.”

On reaching the quarterfinal stage: “The experience they got, maybe if get into this situation next year, we’re not going to be so deer-in-the-headlights-look. That’s what it looked like against Southington (in the CCC championship game). Maybe we’re a little more seasoned now.”

On 2025 with rising sophomore Kyleigh Franklin in role of ace: “Kyleigh’s a good pitcher. This was Angelina’s time. Kyleigh will pitch all summer, all fall, all winter. She is going to be good. She’s got good stuff. We’ll be fine. Add a couple of more kids coming up and we’ll be all right.”

On the local Middletown Monarchs program’s impact at MHS: “I think the Monarchs have been really great for us. They have been awesome. Players are playing. These kids I have, when they get to me they’re not holding a bat for the first time. It’s the first year all nine played summer ball. More kids are playing year-round. Hey, we’re in Class LL. The main goal in getting a lot of the girls returning next year is that I’ve got to get a JV program. I have a couple of good freshmen who didn’t even play. And they missed out on 50 or 60 JV at-bats.”

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