UConn softball team drops pair, Big East title to Villanova

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The UConn softball team hasn’t been a serious title contender in a long time. Geno Auriemma came by before the Big East tournament to give them some thoughts.

“He told the team, the main takeaway, you lose and it stinks for a couple of days,” coach Laura Valentino said. “Then the reality is, you go on living the same life. But you can’t be afraid to win. Don’t be afraid to go out and win, because you dream about that, you dream about winning a championship. So the worst thing you can do is give in to them because you’re afraid. He was a huge part in getting us to the championship game, there was a lot of motivation behind what he told our team.”

The Huskies won their first two games to reach the final day in the driver’s seat, with two chances to clinch. But they ran out of clutch hits and Villanova beat them twice, 5-1 and 6-1, to take the title.

“They were the better team today, they came up with timely hitting,” Valentino said. “We were pressing a little, we haven’t been here in 20 years. It’s definitely an awesome accomplishment for this program and we’re building brick by brick.”

The Huskies scored in the first inning of both games, but no more. They left seven on base in the first game, but were tied in the sixth inning when the Wildcats’ Angela Giampolo launched a grand slam off UConn righthander Marybeth Olson.

Villanova’s Paige Rauch pitched the complete game, and then started the second game, pitching two innings. Anissa Amarilla relieved and shut the Huskies out the rest of the day, but Rauch struck a big blow with the bat, a three-run homer in the seventh off Meghan O’Neil.

The losses ended Valantino’s successful second season as coach, but didn’t dampen enthusiasm for the direction of the program. On a picturesque day, fans who couldn’t get in due to remaining COVID-19 restrictions gathered out on the berm in lawn chairs. Many gathered near the entrance to give the Huskies a hand as they left their sparkling new stadium.

“We’re striving to be the top program in the Northeast,” Valentino said. “We’re striving to win the conference and go on to win in [NCAA] Regional play. Our eventual goal is to be top 25, and there’s no reason we can’t be with this facility, and getting the best players in the Northeast. That’s where we want to go and we’re hungry for that. We have to keep being hungry. This is a piece of our story, and we’re going to come back better next year.”

Leadoff hitter Briana Marcelino went 7-for-8 in the doubleheader, scoring both UConn runs. Sami Barnett and Reese Guevarra drove in the runs. The Huskies finished the season 22-20.

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com