MERIDEN — This spring marked a distinct pivot on area baseball diamonds.
Veteran coaches Howie Hewitt, Bill Mrowka and Chuck Burghardt were no longer in the dugouts at Maloney, Cheshire and Lyman Hall, respectively. Matt Altieri put in his final season at Sheehan.
For decades, those skippers were staples of the baseball scene in Greater Meriden. In one big wave, their replacements arrived: Ricky Marrero at Maloney, Mike Lussier at Cheshire, Billy Rich at Lyman Hall and Dom Lombardozzi at Sheehan.
Likewise, the turnover on the All-Record-Journal Baseball Team was significant. Only two players from a year ago — E.J. Dudley of Platt and Matt Downing of Cheshire — are back.
The All-RJ squad did grow this year. With all eight teams qualifying for the postseason, we felt the tent had to expand.
One team — 21-4 Southington — reached the Class LL state final, winning three games along the way on walk-off hits.
Another team — 25-2 Cheshire — fell short in its 2018 Class LL title defense, but did win 25 games in a row before succumbing in the semifinals to eventual champion Staples.
Bottom line: R-J baseball teams went a combined 99-61 in 2019 and produced seven All-State players. Here’s who led the way.
Let’s start with the Record-Journal’s Baseball Player of the Year, E.J. Dudley. Coming back from a knee injury that cost him his senior season of football, Dudley dove head-first in hardball and produced an All-State season in which he batted .438, scored 25 runs, legged out 10 doubles and five triples and stole 14 bases.
Those numbers bear out the sheer drive and spirit Dudley brought to the game as the quintessential leadoff hitter and center fielder. He is going on to play both baseball and football at Western New England.
At Platt, Dudley had All-RJ teammates in junior catcher Jack Clancy and senior second baseman Peyton Thiel.
Clancy batted .278 with two home runs and 12 RBI while handling a 12-9 pitching staff that posted a 2.93 ERA and threw only four wild pitches. Only one error was charged to Clancy all season and he was named All-CCC South.
Thiel was also a key contributor offensively and defensively in Platt’s run to the Class L state tournament. Thiel batted .301, drove in 14 runs and fielded at .938.
Down Oregon Road a piece, Wilcox Tech put together a 16-8 season. It included a run to the Connecticut Technical Conference championship game.
The staff ace and leading hitter was the veteran left-hander, Sean Dupuis. In his final season, Dupuis was 6-2 on the hill and a torrid .520 at the plate.
At the heart of the defense was shortstop Nick Priebe. The senior also batted .454 with nine doubles and five triples.
Across town, on the East Side, the Maloney Spartans went 8-13 in their first year under Marrero. A cornerstone who will be back next is junior right-hander Owen Papciak, who emerged as a staff ace this year.
Maloney’s big loss is shortstop Elliot Good. The senior turned in an All-State season and will continue playing at Central Connecticut State University.
At Lyman Hall, the future looks bright for Billy Rich. He’s got two All-RJ players coming back, starting with All-State ace Colin Blake.
This spring, as a junior, Blake went 5-4 in nine starts with a 3.00 ERA. The right-hander worked 53 innings. He struck out 58 while walking just 12.
It would be interesting to see how Blake’s teammate and fellow All-RJ selection Cam Baker would do against him. A terrific contact hitter, Baker struck out just six times in 74 plate appearances this spring as a sophomore.
The third baseman batted .271 and had an on-base percentage of .405.
Crosstown rival Sheehan will have a returning All-Stater in Kyle Simmons. Like Blake, Simmons pitched in nine games this spring as a junior. He went 2-2.
Also a third baseman, Simmons batted .394, had a .461 on-base percentage and scored 15 runs.
The Titans did graduate outfielder Evan Wilkinson. Wilkinson batted .292, scored 10 runs and drove in seven. He is going on to play at Division II Post University.
That brings us to the Class LL titans, Cheshire and Southington.
A dream matchup in the state final did not materialize. The season was unforgettable for them nonetheless.
First-year head coach Mike Lussier, who was ultimately named the SCC’s Baseball Coach of the Year, had a pair of All-State players in left-hander Matt Downing and center fielder Ryan Strollo and a third All-RJ player in All-SCC Quinnipiac left fielder Ryan Cyr.
All three were seniors. All three will play in college: Downing at Northeastern, Strollo at Fairfield and Cyr at the University of Rhode Island.
Strollo led the Rams with a .430 average, 36 runs scored and 32 driven in. He had the season’s best single game on May 5 against North Haven, going 5-for-5 and hitting for the cycle with two home runs and 8 RBI. He was named the SCC Player of the Year.
Downing was 4-1 on the hill with a 0.50 ERA. When not pitching, Downing was at first base. The Rams simply had to have his bat in the lineup. Downing hit .313 with seven doubles and 20 RBI.
Cyr, another one of the cornerstone players who returned from the 2018 state championship season, batted .361 this spring. He was also his team’s R-J Scholar-Athlete with a 3.679 GPA.
The departure of those three players, plus several other 2019 graduates who will play in college — Matt Costello at St. Rose; the Battipaglia twins, Eli and Ian, at Franklin Pierce — leave big shoes to be filled at Burt Leventhal Field.
It’s a different story at Fontana Field, where head coach Charlie Lembo will return a solid junior class led by All-RJ pitcher/first baseman Jake Neuman and center fielder Andrew Paradis.
Neuman was All-State this spring. He went 6-0 with a 0.70 on the mound, striking out 56 and walking just 12 in 49-plus innings.
Neuman also hit .321 and drove in 21 runs. Paradis, named All-CCC West, batted .341 with 13 doubles and 19 RBI.
The Blue Knights will be looking for a new shortstop with the graduation of All-RJ and All-CCC West player Jake Romano, who batted a team-high .392 and drove in 23 runs.
Romano, like seven of the other seniors on this team, now makes the pivot to college ball. He’ll join Dudley at Western New England.