SOUTH WINDSOR – Southington Post 72 advanced to its second consecutive 19U American Legion State Championship on Tuesday, defeating Waterford Post 161, 5-2, at Rotary Field.
“I knew this group, we took a couple tough losses [early in the year],” Southington manager Marc Verderame said. “I told them I knew we could get back [to the state championship]. These kids are awesome, coming back the other day [against Bristol] I’m extremely proud of these guys.”
The defending state champs wasted no time in the Northern Division Super Regional, winning three consecutive games behind some fantastic pitching as they allowed just four runs in the tournament.
On Tuesday, Post 72 took a page out of the script from Saturday’s victory over Waterford, jumping out to an early 2-0 lead.
It began with two outs in the first, as designated hitter Kyle Leifert laced double into left center field off Waterford starter Ryan O’Connell.
O’Connell would struggle to find the plate, walking catcher Josh Panarella, centerfielder Brandon Kohl and shortstop Jake Romano to give Southington its first run of the night.
Southington would add to the lead in the second, as right fielder Ethan McDonough picked up right where he left off Sunday, ripping a leadoff double to left center.
“Ethan’s been the guy from the start,” Verderame said. “He’s hot right now. Started off the season 0-for-22, he kept working hard and he’s a young kid who has a bright future.”
Second baseman Connor Patenaude would sacrifice him to third, setting the table for leadoff man Sean Crean’s RBI single to center.
Southington starter Ryan Henderson cruised through the first couple of innings, striking out four, but ran into some trouble in the bottom of the third.
Centerfielder Robert Silva worked a leadoff walk to turn the order over and catcher Ben Jerome followed with an infield single.
After a Ryan Bakken sacrifice bunt, Henderson would walk shortstop Elijah Martinez on five pitches, earning a visit on the mound from assistant coach Bob Borkowski.
“[Henderson] didn’t have his best stuff,” Verderame said. “We walked seven guys tonight and we’re lucky to get out of this one alive, but we fought under pressure.”
Henderson would limit the damage from there, allowing just one run by getting Payton Sutman to ground into a fielder’s choice and Matt Sanford to fly out to right.
O’Connell would settle in, blanking Southington in the third and fourth, while Henderson found himself back in trouble in the bottom half.
Despite getting two quick outs, Henderson would not make it through the fourth after allowing a two-out single to No. 8 hitter Robert Zawacki and then once again walking Silva.
Verderame turned to Justin Verilli, who answered the bell, getting Jerome to fly out to center to preserve the 2-1 lead.
“I’ve got to give it to Justin Verilli,” Verderame said. “We call him the vulture. He’s always there ready to take it. He set the pace there in those middle innings.
“He’s been down to his last visit like three times, he’s come out of retirement like the Undertaker. I love that kid.”
Once O’Connell stopped giving up free passes (he walked five in the first three innings) Southington struggled to generate any offense until the sixth.
Kohl led off the inning with a bunt single and advanced to third on a throwing error.
O’Connell rebounded, getting Romano and Aneesh Avancha both to ground out with the infield in.
However, Ethan McDonough came up with his second big hit of the day, singling through the left side to extend the Southington lead to 3-1 and chasing O’Connell from the game.
“I’m just locked in every pitch trying to get a job done,” McDonough said. “We have no quit ever on this team, we’re in it to the end. Everyone is always locked in every pitch every play. The guys on the bench and in the field always got each other’s back.”
Verilli, using a heavy dose of breaking balls, would get two outs in the sixth, but loaded the bases, prompting Verderame to go to Jeremy Mercier to close it out for the third consecutive game.
Mercier would avoid any damage, getting Bakken to fly out to left to end the frame.
Southington would a pair of insurance run in the seventh, starting with an RBI double off the bat of Leifert. Kohl would drive him in on a bloop single to center, making it 5-1.
“[The runs] were very important in this type of game,” Verderame said. “That’s a good team over there. They kept having opportunities, they had second and third a chance to tie the game, chances to take the lead and we got out of it.
“That’s this team we fight, we battle. We’re never out of it.”
Waterford would pick up a run in the seventh and bring the tying run to the plate, but Southington held on to head back to the state championship.
“It was probably the best feeling ever,” Verilli said of winning the state championship last year.
[This year] seeing that we were kind of being disrespected not being on the top ten, we kind of took that to heart and just played better and showed them on the field.”
Southington will face Stamford, who defeated Naugatuck 4-3 to win the Southern Division in the State Championship beginning Friday at Ceppa Field in Meriden.
“We’re building something here,” Verderame said. “We’ve come a long way. Four years ago, we won five games. We put the hard work in.
“It starts everywhere from the Connecticut Travel Knights to what Charlie Lembo is doing with Southington High School, to us. It flows right through. It’s all credit to the players. We had one mission. This was our one goal. Stamford is a good team but we’re looking forward to it.”