RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany – Meet the new DODDS-Europe Division II softball dynasty. In Italy, and beyond.
The Vicenza Cougars won their second consecutive Division II European championship Saturday with a thorough 10-2 win over the home-country rival Naples Wildcats, whose long title reign came to an end last spring as Vicenza’s began.
Last year, Italian baseball graduated to the European stage with a Vicenza-Naples final. This year, it was softball's turn.
"We actually always wanted to have an Italy finale. We finally got it," Vicenza pitcher Megan Buffington said, "And it worked in our favor."
Cynthia Goodwin blasted a booming three-run home run and Buffington threw a complete-game gem for the Cougars, completing a perfect postseason run for the top-seeded defending champions.
Goodwin’s game-changing shot came in the fourth inning and shattered a tense 1-1 tie. The senior was sprinting into second base when she realized she could finish her trip around the bases at her leisure; she threw her arms in the air in triumph as she passed third base and the Cougar dugout, finally stepping across home and into a mob of cheering teammates.
“When I saw it hit the bleachers I was so happy,” Goodwin said. “I was rounding first, I saw it, and I was like, 'Yay!'”
Buffington, meanwhile, made plays in every way possible. At the plate, she followed Goodwin’s home run with a towering hit that looked like a back-to-back home run until it settled at the fence in left field. She hustled in for a triple, and her pinch-runner, Alayjah Cunningham, scored moments later to stretch the lead to 5-1.
In the field, Buffington snagged a grounder at the pitcher’s mound and turned to throw out the lead Wildcat runner headed to second, keeping a prospective Naples rally at bay. She did have a brief defensive miscue, dropping an infield popup and allowing Naples to score its second run.
But she responded with a strikeout to minimize the damage and preserve a 6-2 Vicenza lead through five innings.
The Cougar ace was dominant from there on out, and the offense tacked on four more runs to drive home the point.
On the surface, Saturday's triumph was simply a successful title defense by an equally-talented version of last year's triumphant Cougars. But Buffington and Goodwin told of a tougher journey. Vicenza lost to Naples twice over the season's opening weekend. And though they won the rest of their regular-season games, they never felt like a juggernaut.
"We started out the season kind of rough. We didn't expect to make it nearly as far as we did," Buffington said. "We just picked up momentum and kept going."
That approach continued in the postseason. The Cougars were impressed by the rest of the field they encountered at the tournament, a roster that included familiar rivals like Naples and Aviano and fresh competition in Rota and Hohenfels.
"A lot of people expected us to be, like, the best," Goodwin said. "But we still felt like everyone was really good."
Even the team's classmates applied pressure, Goodwin said, making it clear that they expected the team to return from Germany with another championship. Goodwin recalled her ambivalent response.
"We'll see how it goes," Goodwin said. "I don't know."
The Cougars' classmates now have their answer. It went very well.