CORNING - The Corning Hawks softball team will participate in the first state final four in program history Saturday.
The Hawks will open with a semifinal match against Section VIII’s East Meadow at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Moreau Recreational park in Glens Falls.
Before you talk about this season's success, you have to start with this time in 2018. Corning had just blown a 6-1 lead in the sectional finals to Horseheads and lost 9-8.
After the loss, which occured on a Friday, most of the Hawks were back at it Monday morning preparing for the next season.
“It was a feeling that wasn’t a good one in our gut, we had allowed an opportunity to slip away,” Corning head coach Mike Johnston said. “Our idea moving forward was to get that out of our system. We came right back that following Monday and, the kids that were available, we started practicing right away.”
One of those players that attended that practice was Laura Bennett, who remembered the practice vividly.
“It was really intense,” said Bennett. “We knew we were coming out next season to win and go far and do what we know we can.”
What it has culminated into is a Section IV Class AA title and the first regional title in program history along with a 19-4 record.
There’s been multiple ways that Corning has won this season, but it starts with excellent starting pitching from Bennett.
Bennett has thrown 21 innings and given up only four earned runs during the postseason run after an excellent regular season that included 11 shutouts.
Johnston, while often relatively secretive about his gameplans, knows the one constant in his lineup is Bennett on the mound.
“We just need to her to be healthy, well-rested and to be confident coming into the game,” Johnston said. “She likes to know gameplan, she likes to know what hitters can do. I think that plays to her mindset that she wants to go out and be effective.”
Bennett’s razor sharp approach plays out when sizing up any hitter that stands against her.
“Batter to batter, knowing what their swing looks like, where they’re standing in the box, it’s all important in which pitch I throw,” Bennett said.
Corning’s lineup, while relatively young with only three seniors, has great softball players throughout starting with freshman sensation Atalyia Rijo.
Rijo has been excellent in the postseason for Corning going 3-for-7 with 2 RBI and four runs scored in three games. Rijo bats leadoff, where Johnston likes to put his most talented hitter.
After Rijo, sophomore Kalea Faulk has turned it on during the playoff run with the highlight being a 2 RBI single in the last game that accounted for two-thirds of Corning’s runs.
East Meadow represents a new challenge for Corning. The Jets have been to three straight Class AA final fours and lost in the state semifinal game a season ago 6-5.
The always methodical Johnston has prepared for the challenge.
“We go through personnel, what we think their strengths are,” said Johnston. “You try to do your homework, you try to talk to people that are in softball and around the state that are involved in travel ball to find little nuances, tendencies, strengths, weaknesses. You try to play to your strengths and take away the things that they do well.”
The Jets sport power throughout the lineup starting with Amy Mallah. The third baseman led East Meadow with 11 home runs in the regular season.
“We know that they’ve got a couple girls that hit for power and numerous home runs,” said Johnston. “Laura has played against Paige Rauch, [BIG East player of the year in 2019 for Villinova from Binghamton] one of the best players that have come out of the area. When you play kids like that, it’s nothing different for her.”
East Meadow is coming off of a 10-0 game against Commack in the regional finals. The Jets pounded out 12 hits in that contest and have scored at least 10 runs in 13 of their 23 games.
In the circle, Alexandra Kelly has started each of the two postseason games for East Meadow and will most likely start against the Hawks on Saturday.
“She’s a sophomore, and they’re 19-4 so she must be doing something right,” Johnston said. “She throws the majority of ballgames and the majority of the innings, so kudos to her. She’s got to be one of the top pitchers in the state.”
The winner of Corning and East Meadow will play the winner of Section V Victor and Section III Cicero-North Syracuse at 4:30 p.m.
“The three teams that are there are there on a yearly basis,” said Johnston. “They are all really strong programs and we know that.”