Just short of the promised land: Legion comes one round from back-to-back state baseball titles

Players from Southington American Legion Post 72 accept their second place trophy at their second straight championship series appearance. The team will get another shot. Their second place finish earned them a berth at regional round.

By KEVIN ROBERTS

STAFF WRITER

Brandon Kohl’s fly ball drifted toward right field, carrying with it the hope of another amazing Southington comeback. Jake Romano was on second base after a two-out double and would score the tying run easily if the ball fell in.

A warm summer breeze carried the ball toward Ceppa Field’s right field fence, and it appeared to be over the head of Stamford right fielder Reid Gesualdi. Gesualdi drifted further and further back toward the fence. Just mere steps from the fence, the ball settled into Gesualdi’s glove for the final out, and Stamford celebrated a 1-0 victory and championship series sweep of Southington. Post 3 defeated Post 72, 2-1, this past Friday in Meriden in the first game of the best-of-three series.

Both teams move on to this week’s Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass., but that didn’t take away from the sting of defeat felt by Southington’s players, coaches and supporters.

“That’s the best team we faced all year, and we were right with them. We got a great squad, I’m proud of the kids,” coach Marc Verderame said. “Nick Borkowski yesterday, Ryan Henderson today pitched their hearts out. They just made one more play, and they had that base hit. Both games, they just made the last play of the game and they won. That’s the champion over there, and I think we’re right with them.”

Borkowski was named to the all-tournament team, as were his teammates Connor Patenaude, Kyle Leifert and Jeremy Mercier.

Southington reached the state championship series with a 5-2 win over Waterford on July 30 in the Northern Division’s super regional at Rotary Field in South Windsor.

Here’s what happened in all three games:

Josh Panarella beats the throw to third base during the second game of the state championship series.

Southington 5, Waterford 2

JULY 30—Post 72 held off Post 161 at South Windsor’s Rotary Field and secured a second straight trip to the best-of-three state championship series. The win also clinched a second consecutive trip to the Northeast Regional.

“This was our one goal. We’re going to the state championship, we’re going to regionals,” Verderame said. “Stamford’s a good team, we’re looking forward to it.”

Justin Verrilli picked up the win in relief of the starter Henderson. Verrilli, known as “The Vulture” among his team, threw two innings and gave up one hit to go along with a strikeout and three walks.

“This is my third year on the team, and I was always kind of a reliever,” Verrilli said. “Whenever it’s a tie ballgame or we’re down, I’d come in and we’d just end up winning that game. I just vultured a win away from the starter.”

Verrilli entered the game with one out in the bottom of the fourth inning. The score was 2-1 Southington, but Waterford had runners on first and second. Verrilli got a fly out to end the inning, then pitched into the sixth inning before giving way to Mercier.

“I’ve been there before, I try to do my best and just pitch to contact,” Verrilli said. “I was struggling a little bit, but I try to get my teammates to make plays.”

Post 72 scored a run in the sixth to go up two runs, then extended the advantage to 5-1 in the seventh. The extra runs turned out to be big. Post 161 scored a run in the bottom of the seventh and had the tying run at the plate with two outs. Mercier struck out the last batter, and Southington celebrated.

“We walked seven guys tonight, and that’s not good. We were lucky to get out of this one alive, but we fought under pressure,” Verderame said.

Romano’s bases-loaded walk in the first brought in the game’s first run. Sean Crean’s RBI single in the second made it 2-0. Waterford scored a run in the third, but Henderson got a fly out to right field to escape a first and third jam.

Ethan McDonough’s RBI single in the sixth gave Southington a 3-1 lead. Leifert’s RBI triple and Kohl’s RBI single put Post 72 further ahead in the seventh. Leifert finished with a double, triple, two runs scored and an RBI while McDonough doubled, singled, scored a run and drove in another. Crean had two singles, a run scored and an RBI.

Stamford 2, Southington 1

AUG. 2—The first game of the best-of-three championship series was scoreless through five innings as Borkowski and Post 3’s Matt Tiplady matched zeroes.

In the top of the sixth inning, Post 72 struck for the game’s first run. Mercier singled with one out, then Panarella drove a double over the left fielder’s ahead with two outs to score Mercier and put Southington ahead, 1-0. Post 72 was six outs away from a 1-0 series lead, but Post 3 had other ideas.

Jaden Dawkins reached on a throwing error to lead off the inning, then stole second base. Up in a sacrifice situation, Michael Berlingo put down a perfect bunt that turned into a single. Berlingo stole second base, but Borkowski got a fly out to very short center field for the first out. After an intentional walk to Joe Skarad to load the bases, Gesualdi singled the other way to right field over the head of first baseman Aneesh Avancha. Dawkins and Berlingo scored, and Stamford led 2-1. The pitch before Gesualdi’s hit was close but was called a ball.

Avancha walked with one out in the top of the seventh inning, but pinch runner Tyler Strong was caught stealing for the game’s final out. Leifert and Avancha each had a single for Southington, which tallied just four hits.

“Josh Panarella drew first blood, but they made one more play than we did,” Verderame said. “That was an excellent baseball game, that’s a good baseball team, I think we’re right with them. We hit the ball on the screws, had some tough breaks.”

Borkowski threw all six innings and yielded two runs (one earned) on four hits. He struck out four, walked one and hit one.

“Borkowski was great, like he’s been time and time again. He went out there, delivered a performance,” Verderame said.

Stamford 1, Southington 0

AUG. 3—Just like the first game, Henderson and Post 3’s Grant Purpura matched zeroes, this time for the first six innings.

In the top of the seventh inning, Dawkins led off with a single, then moved to second on Noah Skaug’s sacrifice bunt. TJ Wainwright lined a single to center field to score Dawkins and put Stamford ahead 1-0. Southington got the tying run on base when Romano doubled with two outs, but couldn’t get him across.

“The kid’s been here before, he’s pitched in three straight championships, last year, this spring, and today,” Verderame said. “He’s pitched in regionals, he’s been here before. He went out here, pitched his [butt] off, I’m proud of that kid.”

Henderson escaped a bases loaded, one out jam in the top of the fifth inning. Gesualdi flied out to McDonough in right field, and he threw a no-hop strike to Panarella at the plate to keep the go-ahead run on third base. Henderson struck out the next batter to end the threat.

In the sixth, Henderson dove for a sacrifice bunt with one out, caught it, and doubled off a Stamford runner at first base for an inning-ending double play. Henderson finished with seven strikeouts, four walks and two hit batters in his complete-game effort.

Southington had just four hits for the second straight game, and Stamford made the plays when it needed to for the win. Leifert led Post 72 with two singles and McDonough added a single.

“We couldn’t make the play, we couldn’t cash in, that’s baseball,” Verderame said. “That’s a good baseball team over there. We’re mad right now, but we got regionals still and we’re going to come back fighting.”

The Northeast Regional is once again being played at Hanover Insurance Park at Fitton Field in Worcester, Mass. Check the Connecticut American Legion website, www.ctalbb.com, for updates.

To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Kevin Roberts, email him at KRoberts@SouthingtonObserver.com

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