By John Goralski
Two days after Southington’s Cinderella run came to an end on the Stamford baseball field, Coach Marc Verderame was found sitting by himself in the bleachers looking out at the high school field. What could he have been done differently? What more could he have asked for from his players? How does Southington finally break through next season?
These are all questions that seemed more like a fairy tale than a possibility when Verderame took over the floundering American Legion baseball team just a few seasons ago. Now, they are the thoughts that haunt him in the off-season.
“It’s very hard to win a championship because a lot of things have to go your way,” he said. “I think our run is a testament to this program because we’ve gone to three straight state tournaments. We’ve gone to three state finals in the last three years between our Legion program and our high school program. This run has really gone a long way to restore that Southington name. It’s been fantastic, and I’m glad to be a part of it. I told the players that they should be proud of it, too.”
But can Southington compete in a league that’s dominated by regional teams? Teams like Branford, Bristol, and Simsbury have captured recent titles, and all of them draw from multiple high schools or neighboring towns. Can Southington’s run at a state title be an annual event? Verderame believes that they can.
“I think we can be competitive. We’ve been in with a chance three times,” he said about the recent success at the high school and Legion levels. “Other teams might draw from a few different towns, but we all come from one community. To have that kind of talent, year after year, is a testament to the entire system of baseball. [Blue Knight coach] Charlie Lembo and I have tried to establish a program that can be connected all the way from Little League to the high school and Legion. That’s what we’ve done and will continue to do.”
Throughout much of the postseason, Southington dominated with just one game decided by fewer than three runs. With a lopsided, 12-2 win over Enfield in the regional final on Tuesday, July 30, Southington advanced to the state championship series for the first time since 1993—the year that Southington captured its only state title.
Southington’s players were coming off a loss in the high school championship game and a disappointing end to the regular season that cost them the Zone 1 title, but the team regrouped for an unprecedented postseason run. They toppled three zone champions to win their region and score a berth into the championship series.
“This is the farthest we’ve gone since 1993. We’ve had some good teams, but it’s tough,” Verderame said after the win against Enfield. “Baseball is baseball, and anything can happen. I can’t say enough about these kids. I knew the team I had coming in. they’re the best team that I’ve had, and they came together nice. We had some adversity against Avon and Bristol. A lot of people said that we can’t finish, but when the score’s out of reach you don’t have to worry about that.”
But the championship series was a different story. In the first game, both teams battled through three perfect innings before Branford began their charge. Brett Susi threw a perfect game through three innings, but Branford rallied for 12 hits over the next 3 ½ innings. Joe Daigle came in for just two batters in the seventh inning before the game ended with a 10-0 mercy-rule decision in the seventh inning.
Branford ace John Amendola stymied the Southington batters. Post 72 managed just two hits and nobody reached second base in the shortened contest.
“We just had to get a couple of runs here and there, but they jumped on us,” said Verderame. “They hit the ball, and we didn’t. We had terrible at bats. We went up there with a terrible approach, and we had guys go up there and swing at the first pitch trying to hit a first-pitch fastball.”
In the second inning, Southington had a chance to win but failed to score runners in the final inning of regulation. With runners on first and second and one out, Southington couldn’t score the go ahead run. Branford went on to win in the 10th inning to clinch the series.
Craig Frobel scattered six hits, seven strikeouts, and one run over nine innings, but left the game clinging to a 1-1 tie. Branford rallied for four runs against Southington’s bullpen and held on for a 4-1 win.
“I told them that we had a lot to be proud of,” said the coach. “A lot of people wrote us off after we lost to Avon and didn’t win the zone, but we showed our stuff in the tournament. It was just fantastic. This was a special group. They have nothing to be ashamed of. I hope that they keep their heads high and stick around the program.”
As for next season, Southington has the potential to return all but one player from this year’s roster. On the other hand, Verderame knows that some college players will go on to play in other leagues.
“I told them all that they are welcome to come back and play for us any time. I think that, if we can keep this group together, we’d be the favorites to win it all next year,” said the coach. “It was a great season. I’m proud of the kids for what they did, and we made a good run. I think we made a lot of people proud.”
With the losses, Southington (24-7) finished as the state runners-up. Branford (32-1) will advance to the regional tournament.
“It was so great to have the support that the fans and the citizens of Southington have showed us by coming out to see us and making the trip to Stamford to see us play. It was great, and we appreciated it,” said the coach. “I’m proud of my players for the way they represent themselves and the class they showed. We did it the right way. We work hard, and it was awesome to see how many phone calls and messages I received and the support of our fans. I think we had more fans than Branford did at the state tournament. It was a good thing they did for the town.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.