CHESHIRE — The Cheshire baseball team proudly lets opponents know who won last season’s Class LL state championship.
The way the Rams have started the 2019 season, the school may have to make room for a second such banner behind home plate.
Cheshire won its fifth straight game Friday to improve to 5-1. The only blemish thus far is a 1-0 loss to SCC rival Amity in the season opener.
On Monday, the Rams will look to make it six straight wins when they travel to Middletown’s Palmer Field to take on SCC Quinnipiac foe Xavier.
Loaded with a lineup that features seven starters off last year’s title team, and a sophomore shortstop hitting .438, the Rams are more than well- equipped to defend their crown. In fact, this year’s squad looks every bit as good — if not better — than last year’s team that went 20-4 and beat Ridgefield 1-0 in the Class LL state title game.
“This team has so much chemistry,” third baseman Ian Battipaglia said. “Last year, we basically all played all year. We’re just trying to do the same thing (as last year), obviously.
“We had some big pieces leave, but people are filling their spots well, and stepping up.”
The Rams graduated their top two pitchers from a year ago, Ben DeLaubell and Ben Shadeck. DeLaubell pitched a three-hit shutout to beat Ridgefield in his final high school game. He is now at West Point pitching in relief for Army.
Also gone is last year’s starting shortstop, Ben Schena, who is hitting over .300 this season as a freshman at Endicott College.
Cheshire also saw the departure of longtime head coach Bill Mrowka, who retired after 31 years at Cheshire — the last 21 as the varsity head coach.
In their place, however, are players and a coach who understand just what it takes to be successful on the highest level of high school baseball.
Senior Matt Downing has stepped into the role of Cheshire’s ace. The left-hander was the Rams’ No. 3 starter as a junior and has made an early case as the state’s top hurler this year.
Downing has allowed just three earned runs over three starts and 20 innings for a 1.01 ERA. He took a perfect game into the fifth inning against Amity and got a no-decision despite throwing four-hit ball over 7 innings of Cheshire’s 3-2 walk-off win over Trumbull in the eighth.
In Downing’s most recent outing, Friday’s 7-1 SCC Quinnipiac win over Lyman Hall, he struck out a career-high 15 in six innings to finally get a personal win.
“We are definitely going after what we did last year,” Downing said. “We have a lot of guys back with a lot of experience.
“We knew from the second we won the championship (last year) there would be a target on our backs,” Downing added. “We are just playing our hearts out.”
The only new face in the Rams’ 2019 lineup is sophomore Ryan Scialabba, whose father was on the Cheshire coaching staff until his son started playing varsity a year ago. Ryan Scialabba was part of the Rams’ championship season, albeit as a backup to Schena and as a part-time second baseman.
Scialabba, who went 3-for-3 against Lyman Hall, bats ninth, which proves just how deep Cheshire’s lineup is this season. Scialabba is one of six Rams hitting over .300. As a team, Cheshire sports a .339 average.
“(Scialabba) is as deep as (a lineup) gets,” said No. 7 hitter Ryan Cyr, who leads Cheshire with a .526 average.
Also batting over .300 is cleanup hitter Ian Battapaglia. He’s at .381 with a team-high nine RBI. Ryan Strollo (.375), Downing (.353) and leadoff hitter Paul Villecco (.350) are the other three Rams hitting over .300.
“Nothing is better than if we have 7-8-9 coming up and ‘Stuart Little’ (Scialabba) gets on base,” Cyr added. “It’s just perfect. Then our 1, 2 and 3 hitters are coming up next, and that’s how you produce runs.”
Not that the Rams have needed much offense. It’s not just Downing who has been dominating on the mound.
Junior Mike Kozlowski hasn’t allowed an earned run in two starts and 11 innings. Senior Robert Roles threw just two pitches in the eighth inning to earn the win in relief of Downing against Trumbull. He then started and went six innings to beat Guilford on Thursday.
Put it all together — and aside from that 3-2 win in eight innings over Trumbull — the Rams have rolled to wins over Shelton, Branford, Guilford and Lyman Hall by a combined score of 35-3.
So much for a championship hangover.
“Coming back with seven or eight starters this year was just huge,” Cyr said. “Obviously, we lost some big assets in DeLaubell, Shadeck and Schena, but this is what this team should do and is going to do.
“That first loss was kind of a kick in the rear end, a reality check,” Cyr added. “From then on, we have really been swinging the bats and playing good defense.”
With so much talent returning, Lussier was quick to manage expectations.
“At the start of the year, we sat down as a group and I said to them that one of the toughest things to do is to repeat,” Lussier related. “I said, ‘I don’t want you guys to feel any pressure about it; I want you guys to go out game by game like we did last year.’”
Ah, but there was pressure, admits Lussier. But it was on the coach, not his players.
Lussier served as an assistant on Mrowka’s staff prior to and during Cheshire’s championship run. And taking over a team stacked with this year’s talent wasn’t as simple writing down familiar names on the lineup card.
“Not only are they looking at you as first-year coach, but they are saying, ‘Ah, you should win it with the talent you have,’” Lussier said. “But I don’t believe in that. It’s another year, something totally different.
“Yes, I do have kids who are back and I do know their personalities and they know mine. So that’s good. It helps, I’m not going to say it doesn’t help. But there is no tomorrow, right now. There is only today. We have to win today. Our goal is to win the week. Go 2-1 or 3-0. The guys believe in winning every week.”
“Everyone guns for Cheshire, regardless. Now that we won (a state championship) last year, it’s even more so. We don’t look past any game. You can’t look past (any team).”
“The first goal is to win the SCC conference, and then go from there.”
Where “there” is just may be where Cheshire ended up last year.