MERIDEN – Southington Post 72’s quest for back-to-back Connecticut American Legion state championships fell short on Saturday, losing 1-0 to Stamford Post 3 at Ceppa Field.
“I’m proud of the kids this season had a lot of ups and downs,” Southington manager Marc Verderame said. “We had one goal to get here and unfortunately we just came up too short. I told the kids we’re going to mourn this and we’re going to bleed awhile but we’re going to come back and fight again in the [Northeast Regional].”
Post 72 was unable to force a winner-take-all Game 3, as they dropped what was yet another pitcher’s duel after Friday night’s 2-1 defeat.
“It’s tough,” Verderame said. “We played great. That’s the best team we faced all year. We were right with them. I’m proud of the kids.”
Southington’s Ryan Henderson and Stamford’s Grant Purpura matched each other pitch for pitch over the first six innings, keeping the game knotted at zero.
“The kid’s been here before,” Verderame said of Henderson. “He’s pitched in three straight state championships, last year, this spring and now today. He went out there and pitched his ass off. It’s all we could ask for.”
Henderson would work out of a couple jams to keep Southington in this one, including one with bases loaded and just one out in the fifth.
After hitting left fielder Jaden Dawkins with a pitch, Henderson found himself in a similar situation to Borkowksi yesterday when Stamford was able to get the go-ahead single in the sixth.
Dawkins would advance to second on an errant pickoff attempt and then move to third on a bunt single by leadoff hitter Noah Skaug.
Skaug took second on a defensive indifference, but Henderson bore down, striking out shortstop T.J. Wainwright.
Verderame would again walk Joe Skarad to face Friday night hero Reid Gesualdi, but this time Gesualdi flew out to shallow right.
“We walked [Skarad],” Verderame said. “He’s dangerous. But then Henderson made us look good. He got out of that jam. That’s what we’ve been doing all year we fight.”
Henderson would end the frame by striking out first baseman Joe Gambino, leading to an eruption from the Post 72 bench.
However, Purpura would match him all the way.
Southington would get runners on second and third in the fourth and first and second in the sixth, but Purpura worked out of both jams.
“Grant is a shut-down pitcher,” Stamford head coach Kevin Murray said. “His job is to get zeroes and he’s one of the best around. He kept us in the game, he kept the zeroes on the board.
“They were threatening a couple times but he kept his composure and he locked up when he had to.”
Southington came a few feet from scoring in the sixth, but Kyle Leifert was thrown out at the plate after trying to score from second on a grounder to short. Stamford had tried to turn two the traditional way, but after Ethan McDonough beat out Skaug’s throw to first, Gambino nabbed Leifert trying to score.
“We couldn’t make the [big play],” Verderame said. “We couldn’t cash in. That’s baseball.”
Stamford would finally break through against Henderson in the seventh, once again because of the speed of Dawkins.
“He’s a game-changer with his speed,” Murray said. “He got the base hit to get on in the last inning, we got the bunt down and had two at bats to put the game in our hands. He creates havoc on the bases and he proved it again today.”
The left fielder led off the inning with a single, the advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt.
That brought Wainwright to the plate, who missed Game 1 due to a suspension for getting ejected in the Southern Division final earlier in the week.
Despite not coming through in the fifth, the Stamford co-captain delivered in the seventh, ripping a single to center, easily scoring the speedy Dawkins.
“How ironic is that,” Murray said. “He comes back and gets the big hit of the game and led us to the state championship. I’m proud of that kid, he’s a leader and he’s one of our co-captains. I’m truly blessed that he came through in that big spot and it helps him mentally.”
Both Southington and Stamford will now advance to the Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass. with an eye on advancing to the American Legion World Series in Shelby, N.C.
“That’s great baseball,” Murray said, “That was American Legion baseball at its best. Two of the best teams in the state battling for a trophy and we’re lucky both will be representing Connecticut in the regional.”
Even after the two heart-breaking losses, Verderame is confident that his team will make some noise come regional play.
Southington Post 72 will open up regional play on Wednesday, as they will take on the state champion from Vermont.
“I think we’re built for regionals,” Verderame said. “Same thing as [the state tournament]. We had an opportunity, we lost 2-1 and we lost 1-0. We play this game 100 times we win 50, and they win 50 we just happened to lose two here.
“We’re right there with [Stamford] and I’m looking forward to regionals.”