By KEVIN ROBERTS
It’s been five years since Southington’s legion team surged into the state finals, and it was 20 years before that when Post 72 captured their only state title. With wins over Oakville and Cheshire, the locals are just one win from returning to the state championship series.
Once again, it’s a season on the brink.
“There are a lot of similarities between this team and that last one,” said Southington coach Marc Verderame.
In 2013, Southington suffered some losses at the end of the season that made state fans dismiss them. Same thing this year.
Five years ago, it took a Cinderella run to quiet the critics, including a come-from-behind win in the sectionals, and this year’s team had to claw its way through the early rounds.
Even the coaching milestones were similar. In 2013, Verderame was celebrating 100 wins. This year, it’s No. 200.
“This is a team that’s been to hell and back,” said the coach. “Two weeks ago we got mercied two out of three games. Everybody sort of counted us on, but I told them ‘let’s go on a run.’ I’m proud of these guys. We’re taking this journey as long as we can.”
On Tuesday, Cheshire (2-1) is facing elimination in Meriden at the start of the super regional final series. Even if they lose, Southington (2-0) will get another chance on Wednesday. Rested and ready, Southington is in the driver’s seat.
“We talked about it early in the year—that our arms would take us as far as we were going to go,” said Verderame on the eve of the Cheshire series. “We had a great performance by Nick Borkowski on Saturday and a great performance by Ryan Henderson. Ryan Sheehan pitched a gem last Thursday, and now he’s coming back for our next game. We’re set up with the arms.”
Cheshire falls in Semis
JULY 29—Henderson missed the strike zone just four times before handing off the ball in the sixth inning with a 4-0 lead. Jason Krar faced seven batters to get the save, and Southington became the only undefeated team in the Northern division brackets with a win over Cheshire.
“Ryan Henderson pitched a great game,” said Verderame. “He was light out, but he’s been so great for his last couple of starts.”
Danny Topper opened the scoring in the third inning and came around to score the following inning to give Southington a 2-0 lead. Jake Romano scored in between, and Andrew Owsianko put the game out of reach in when he scored in the fifth inning.
Henderson did the rest, scattering 4 strikeouts and 5 hits over 5 2/3 innings on the mound. He combined with Krar to keep Cheshire off the scoreboard, and Southington held on for a 4-0 win.
“I’m proud of my kids for going out there and proving a point,” said Verderame. “There’s such an aura around Cheshire since they won the state championship and beat us three times. Everybody was picking them to win the Legion championship, so I really thought we needed to go out there and prove that we can hang with them.”
Oakville falls in Quarters
JULY 28—One day earlier, Southington faced Zone 5 champion Oakville in their first super regional match-up at Ceppa Field in Meriden, and Post 72 came away with a strong 3-1 win.
Borkowski needed just 75 pitches to get through a complete game where he gave up one run on three hits. The right-hander struck out five, walked none, and had a no-hitter going into the fifth inning.
“Nick struggled the other day in that loss against Trumbull, and he came back [July 28] and pitched the best game I’ve seen him pitch,” Verderame said. “Pitched an absolute gem, led us to victory, and I’m proud of him.”
Borkowski handcuffed Oakville hitters at times, throwing his slider off of a good fastball that he located well.
On offense, Southington broke through for two runs in the top of the fourth against Oakville’s Alan Stinson. Jeremy Mercier led off with a single, then stole second base. Mercier advanced to third on a Romano fly ball to right field, then scored on Tyler Cyr’s single to right. Cyr had been down in the count, but was able to drive a pitch to the opposite field for a 1-0 lead. Cyr stole second base, then scored on Topper’s single to left field to make it 2-0. Topper led Post 72 with two hits, and Cyr scored two runs.
“It’s all about execution,” Verderame said. “We got the steals, and guys drove them in.”
Oakville cut the Southington lead to 2-1 in the sixth on an RBI single from Justin Guerrera. Guerrera drove in Cam DeFeo, who doubled with two outs.
Post 72 stretched the lead back to 3-1 in the seventh. Cyr reached on an infield error leading off, then stole second base. After the first out was made, Dylan Chiaro pulled a ball down the right field line to score Cyr.
“We had a stolen base and a big hit,” Verderame said. “We’re always looking for that big hit, we came through, and it was very important to have that cushion.”
Borkowski had all the support he needed and retired Oakville in order in the bottom of the seventh. He struck out the first two batters, then got a fly out to Brandon Kohl in center to end the game.
Southington needed one win. Trumbull needed two. Trumbull took the first game, but Southington took the series.
Post 72 rebounded from a 3-1 loss in the pod finals to clinch a super regional berth with a 7-2 win in the rematch.
Trumbull scored two runs in the top of the eighth inning to take a 3-1 lead in the first game of the series and held on to win in the rain by that same margin. On Wednesday, July 25, Trumbull escaped elimination, but it didn’t come easy.
Two runs came home on a controversial double by Vinny Derubeis that landed in the corner near the right field line. Dylan Chiaro, who had chased down a couple fly balls earlier in the game, dove for the ball but couldn’t come up with it. Southington thought the ball was foul, but the call wasn’t changed and Post 72 was down two runs.
“I saw right on the line, bang-bang call,” Verderame said. “Without the benefit of instant replay, I can’t really say either way.”
Verderame refused to blame Southington’s misfortune on the call. Instead, he pointed to the bevy of chances Southington had offensively. Post 72 left eight men on base, including six in the first three innings alone. Henderson deserved better, having gone the first seven innings and given up a single unearned run.
“We were looking for a strong pitching performance and we got it,” Verderame said. “Ryan Henderson pitched his heart out, threw really well … came out here, he deserved to win. We couldn’t execute for him. We had all kinds of chances. The one run we scored, we stole a run.”
For the first five innings, the Southington defense did its part, especially center fielder Brandon Kohl. In the top of the fifth, Kohl came in on a short fly ball, laid out and made a spectacular diving catch for the first out.
Kohl’s next performance may have been even better. A ball was hit over Kohl’s head and nearly reached the center field fence. Kohl retrieved it, and without the benefit of a crow hop, threw it to second base. The throw went high into the air, but it came down to second base in the air. Connor Patenaude was there to catch the ball and put the tag on the runner for an incredible out that really fired up the Southington bench.
Trumbull tied the game in the sixth without the benefit of a ball leaving the infield. A bunt base hit, sacrifice bunt, deep single to shortstop and infield error brought in the tying run. A rain delay before the seventh brought two sets of warm-ups for Henderson, and he was replaced by Nick Borkowski for the eighth.
“The decision to take him out was mine,” Verderame said. “We brought in Nick Borkowski. He’s been our closer, and he’s been great. That was our strategy, get seven innings and get to Borkowski. We thought we were in the driver’s seat, and it backfired.”
Post 72 lost and had to play another game, but got just a half-inning and two batters into the second game rain ended the day for both sides.
Play resumed on Thursday, July 26 after a state ruling to keep the game at Southington High School. Persistent rain ended forced suspension on the Southington High School field, but it took a state ruling to make play resume at Fontana Field. When play ended on Wednesday, the game was going to resume in Trumbull.
“Obviously we talked to the State Legion and that got changed,” said Southington assistant coach Bob Borkowski. “They fixed the rule, which was great. Playing here on our field, they got it mowed. The maintenance guys did a great job.”
Southington took advantage of the site change. Sheehan inherited a 2-2 counts, a 2-1 lead, and a runner on third with no outs. The run scored to tie the score, but Southington answered with a five run rally.
“Ryan Sheehan, hat’s off to that kid,” Borkowski said. “He’s a battler. I said it before the game, I’ve never seen him throw two bad games in a row, and he came in and he was MVP there. It just allowed our guys to catch up.”
Topper led off the frame with a single and later scored on a wild pitch with the bases loaded to regain the lead. A Romano fielder’s choice put Southington up 4-2.
Topper started another rally in the sixth with a two-out single. Chiaro pulled a ball through the right side of the infield for a single, and Topper ran all the way to third. Chiaro was heads up on the play and took second on the throw. When a Panarella fly ball to center dropped, Topper and Chiaro scored to make it 6-2.
Southington stole a run in the top of the seventh for the final nail in the Trumbull coffin. Mercier led off with a single, then Bob Borkowski went into his bag of tricks with Cyr at the plate. Post 72 executed a bunt-and-run with Cyr and Mercier, and it resulted in the game’s final run.
“I like bunting for hits a lot, and I told Cyr, I said I’m having Mercier run on the first pitch,” Borkowski said. “Let’s bunt for a hit and see what happens. Mercier has been in that spot with me a thousand times, so when [Cyr] bunted, he knew nobody was at third.”
Sheehan got a 1-2-3 inning, started with a nice catch in left by Cyr, to close the game out and send Southington to the Super Regional. Topper led the team with three hits while Panarella, Mercier and Cyr each had two hits.
To comment on the story or to contact staff writer Kevin Roberts, email him at KRoberts@SouthingtonObserver.com. John Goralski contributed to this article.