SOUTHINGTON — Four one-run wins, including three of the walk-off variety, has added up to a memorable spring for the Southington Blue Knights and their first trip to the Class LL state baseball finals since 2014.
But there is still work to be done.
The No. 3 Blue Knights will go for their first state title in 20 years when they face No. 5 Staples-Westport in the Class LL final at Middletown’s Palmer Field on Saturday. First pitch is at noon.
Both squads enter the contest at 21-3.
Southington opened its postseason run with a 4-3, 11-inning win over No. 30 New Britain that stretched across two days because of rain. It ended on a walk-off hit by Billy Carr.
It was also a sign of things to come.
Carr, batting .296, played the hero again the very next day in a 1-0 win over No. 19 Darien in the second round.
In the quarterfinals, Southington won 3-2 over No. 6 Fairfield-Ludlowe. That game was a case of walk-off defense. While the Blue Knights didn’t need to resort to their last at-bat, they ended the game with a timely double play with Ludlowe runners on the corners with one out.
Second baseman Bryce Worth (.308, 17 RBI) snared a liner and turned it into a double play with the runner taking off from first on the play.
Then, in Tuesday’s semifinals at Waterbury’s Municipal Stadium, it was Jake Neuman’s turn to play the hero with a walk-off double to sink Amity, 3-2. Neuman also went the distance on the mound.
“It’s been great; it’s been fun; it’s been intense,” Southington coach Charlie Lembo said. “I love when I’m spending time with this group. We are happy to still be playing and everyone has been pulling for each other.”
This is Southington’s 13th trip to the state finals. There have been three state titles: 1961 (Class M), 1994 (Class LL) and 1999 (Class LL).
“It’s always a big accomplishment for every team to make the state finals,” Lembo said. “That’s one of your goals at the beginning of the year for every team in the state — to play in the state championship game and win it.
“To be honest, I knew this team had the potential to be very good. We had a lot of guys with expierence coming back. A lot of guys got experience as sophomores and juniors.”
Staples is making its fifth state final appearance. The Wreckers last crown came in 2017 in Class LL. Their other title was Class L in 2001.
The Wreckers haven’t had to sweat nearly as much as Southington to make the final. The Westport team downed No. 28 Norwalk 9-5 in the first round, No. 12 Wilbur Cross 7-0 in the second round and No. 13 Trumbull 12-6 in the quarters.
Then came the semifinal with top-seeded and defending champion Cheshire. The Rams had ended the Wreckers’ Class LL reign in 2018 and, behind a shutout from Gatorade Player of the Year Chad Knight, the Wreckers returned the favor on Tuesday night at Municipal, 3-0.
“We don’t know that much about them,” Lembo said. “We played them three or four years ago in the tournament. They are very good. They’re well-coached. The worked just as hard as anyone in the state. They’ve been to a couple semifinals and finals in the last few years. We won’t take anyone lightly. They are a good team and we are going to have to play very well.”
During the week, Lembo said he was going to take inventory of his pitchers and decide on his starting pitcher closer to game day. Every Southington starter is being considered — except Neuman, who threw 107 pitches in his semifinal gem against Amity. On three days rest, Neuman (6-0, 0.70 ERA) could be available in relief.
Southington’s other regular starters are Ryan Henderson (5-2, 1.12 ERA) and Jason Krar (4-0, 1.63). Vincent Spizzoucco is 5-0 with a 1.22 ERA, mainly as a reliever.
“All hands are on deck right now,” Lembo said. “We are riding a high right now as a team and we want to keep it going.”
Krar went five innings in the quarterfinal win over Fairfield-Ludlowe. Henderson only needed 71 pitches in a complete-game shutout against Darien in the second round. Neuman tossed eight innings in Southington’s 11-inning win over New Britain.
Opponents are hitting a paltry .197 against the Southington staff as a whole.
Lembo credited pitching coach Brett Susi for his work with the pitching staff and catcher Jake DelMonte’s work behind the plate. Lembo added that assistants Brian Crowley and Ryan Downes have been valuable members of his coaching staff.
On offense, Southington is hitting .330 as a team. Jake Romano sports the highest batting average among the regulars at .403. He’s followed by Jake Meade (.383, 28 runs, 15 RBI, 12 SB), Andrew Paradis (.354, 13 2B, 19 RBI), DelMonte (.343, 25 runs, 14 RBI) and Neuman (.329, 17 run, 21 RBI).
“It’s taken hard work,” Lembo said. “This wasn’t just handed to them. They put in a lot of hard work in the season and in the weight room. It’s coming to fruition right now, but we still have one more game to play today.”
Southington has nine seniors on the roster: Worth, Tyler Strong, Romano, Nico Gaudio, Krar, J.T. Martin, Brendan Kavanagh, Kyle Leifert and Henderson.