By John Goralski
A small parade of vehicles floated down the mountain road from Wolcott’s soggy field to the one at Recreation Park. First, a small band of volunteers began to ready the field. Next came the procession of players. Referees wandered onto the field like grand marshals at 9:30, and the fanfare began after midnight.
On Wednesday, July 17, the game started two hours late in a different town than it was scheduled, but Southington fans have waited almost two decades for the final result. With a 7-4 win over Wolcott, Post 72 put the final touches on a championship title. For the first time since 1996, Southington’s American Legion baseball team captured the Zone I championship.
“It’s amazing. It hasn’t been done in almost 20 years,” said Southington coach Marc Verderame. “When we lost that game at Bristol [on July 11], it could have gone either way. We could have ended up third in the zone, but we went ahead and won out. We controlled our own destiny. We executed exactly what we needed to do, and we’re zone champions. That’s big.”
Verderame spent the season finale on his couch, reading the flurry of messages while he mended from a recent surgery. He wasn’t there to witness the final win, but the coach said that he never feared the end result.
“I was getting texts from a couple of parents after almost every pitch and every batter,” he said. “I knew that they’d come through. I knew that we were a good team, and I knew that [assistant coach] John Lalla would pull them through as the skipper.”
The victory capped an historic race to the finish. Since splitting both ends of a double header on July 1, Southington rallied for nine wins in their final 10 starts. Southington captured their first zone title since 1996 and just their second since claiming a state title in 1993. With the title, Southington earned an automatic bye into the state tournament and avoided the perils of the play-in brackets.
“It’s important to know the significance of winning our zone,” said Verderame. “We’ve had a lot of good Southington players over the years that haven’t won. The fact that this team has won the zone is incredible, and it was pretty much against all odds. If you took our season and played it 100 times, we might only win it once. The fact that we did it is amazing. I’m so proud of the kids.”
Southington finished the regular season with a 21-6 record. The .778 winning percentage put them in an uncontested position atop the zone standings.
Bristol (20-7) finished second. Avon (19-8) finished third. Unionville (17-10) and Simsbury (16-11) both qualified for the play-in tournament, but Southington was the only one to advances directly to the 16-team championship bracket.
The importance of that became clear as last weekend’s play-in games unfolded. Bristol’s second place finish earned them a bye in the opening round, but a loss to Oxford in their first postseason game eliminated the perennial champion from the upcoming state tournament.
“Everybody’s just so used to Bristol winning it every year. When we won it, you can’t believe all of the support and emails I’ve received,” said Verderame. “I’ve talked to other managers and coaches throughout the state, and they all say that Zone I is the toughest. Being able to be on top of this zone and to be able to represent them at the state tournament is unbelievable.”
A 5-2 victory in Burlington on Tuesday set up the regular season finale, but it took the win over Wolcott to clinch the zone title. Just as important as the wins was the return of Southington’s injured pitchers to the mound.
Craig Frobel returned for a relief appearance against Burlington, and he combined with Justin Robarge for the victory over Wolcott. The pair only allowed three earned runs over the two contests, but they combined for 11 walks.
Verderame said that the lack of control was due to rust, and he expects both to be ready on Saturday when No. 9 Southington takes on No. 15 Stamford in the opening round.
“In the tournament, we play nine innings, so it’s really important to have them back,” he said. “If we’re going to win it, we’re going to have to win something like five or six games in a week. A week ago, we only had one or two starters. Now, we’ll have five or six. Susi’s our ace, and he’s going on Saturday. Then, we’ve got guys like Goralski and Stearns in the bullpen, and they’re ready to go at a moment’s notice.”
Southington will be the home team as the higher seed, but they’ll be facing Stamford on their home field. The game is scheduled to begin at 6:30 at Cubeta Stadium. It’s located in Scalzi Park, 100 Bridge Street, Stamford.
“Our goal now is to win on Saturday, and you really can’t look much further than that,” Verderame said. “We’ve accomplished our goal with the zone. That’s exciting, but it isn’t the end of the road for us.”
He continued. “Our ultimate goal is to have revenge on Greenwich. They sort of beat us up last year. They’re the No. 1 team in the state. To win a title, you’re going to have to face them. That’s our goal. However we can do it, we’re going to do it.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.