MERIDEN — The 2018 American Legion state championship belongs to Southington.
Post 72 defeated Ellington in eight innings, 7-6, on Saturday night to complete a best-of-three championship series sweep at Ceppa Field. The game ended on a walk-off, two-run double off the bat of Andrew Owsianko after Ellington had taken a 6-5 lead in the top of the eighth and appeared on the verge of forcing a winner-take-all Game 3.
“A lot of times you want to see your team come back at some point in the year. You don’t want it to be easy so you can just call on something,” said Southington head coach Marc Verderame. “We’ve had so many moments where we’ve been down — down to our last out. We never lost faith because we’ve been here before.”
After taking an initial 2-0 lead, Southington rallied three times on Saturday. Verderame’s team erased a 4-2 deficit in the fifth and a 5-4 gap in the sixth before staging the coup de grace in the eighth.
In each instance, Southington charged right back in the bottom of the inning after Ellington had grabbed the upper hand in the top half.
”We preached adversity, we preached challenges and we came back,” Verderame said. “These kids have hearts of champions. What else can you say? Unbelievable.”
It was Southington’s second dramatic victory of the week at Ceppa Field. On Tuesday, Southington outlasted Cheshire 5-0 in 13 innings in the South Division super regional final on a bases-loaded walk to Brayden Cooney and a grand slam by Jeremy Mercier.
On Saturday, it was Owsianko’s turn to play the hero. Cooney again played a key role in the rally. He drew a walk on the heels of a Josh Panarella single to put runners at first and second.
Owsianko came up with two outs and whacked a deep fly ball over the left fielder’s head. The left fielder slipped trying to track the ball and the loss of footing allowed Cooney to score the winning run all the way from first base.
“Off the bat, honestly, I thought it was out,” Owsianko said. “I didn’t get enough, but that’s alright because it ended up being a double — doesn’t matter because it’s for the team. As long as I got those two runs in, it doesn’t matter.
“Rounding first base, I saw the kid trying to put his hands up and call for a ground-rule double, but they didn’t get it,” Owsianko added. “I saw Cooney running, and when I saw him running around third and touch home I knew, ‘That’s it, and now we’re state champs.’ That’s crazy.”
Southington (28-9) now advances to the New England Regional, which opens Wednesday in Shrewsbury, Mass. Post 72 plays the opening game at Fitton Field at 9:30 a.m. against Vermont.
Rain delayed Saturday’s scheduled 1 p.m. start to 5 p.m. Meriden volunteers tended the wet field and made it playable for the two teams.
Southington, coming off a 3-2 victory on Friday night in Game 1, got off to the start it had hoped for. In the bottom of the first, Mercier continued his torrid playoff run with a solo home run.
Southington tacked on a second run in the bottom of the second inning. Dylan Chiaro and Jake Romano drew back-to-back walks. Two batters later, Dan Topper smacked a line drive over the third baseman’s head into left field. Chiaro came in to score.
The 2-0 lead held until the fifth inning. Ellington’s Logan Terry led off with a single, Aaron Young reached on an error and Adam Muzsi reached on a bunt single to load the bases.
Ellington nearly squandered the chance until, with two outs, Dakota Aldrich smashed a double over the right fielder’s head to clear the bases. And, after Stefan Lesco drew a walk, Kevin Smith singled up with middle to bring in Aldrich, making the score 4-2 in Ellington’s favor.
Southington responded immediately in the bottom half. After a walk from Brandon Kohl, Cooney lined a ground-rule double to right field, putting runners on second and third. Kohl came in to score on a passed ball and Owsianko hit a sacrifice fly to center, scoring Cooney to tie the game, 4-4.
Ellington retook the lead in the top of the sixth. After Terry doubled and went to third on a fielder’s choice. Ryan Decker then singled up the middle to give Ellington a 5-4 lead.
Southington responded again in the bottom half of the inning and did it with two outs. Back-to-back from Topper and Mercier sparked the rally. A wild pitch moved the runners over and an error at first base on a ground ball by Panarella allowed Topper to score the tying run.
Post 72 had a chance to win it in the bottom of the seventh, but left the bases loaded. That merely made for a more dramatic walk-off stage.
The game went into extra innings with the score tied 5-5. In the top of the eighth, singles from Young, Mike Dubiel and Muzsi loaded up the bases for Ellington. Chase Kidd then drew a walk to force in Young with the go-ahead run.
It could have been worse. Southington managed to get out of the inning with Young being the only Ellington runner to cross home plate.
That kept Post 72 within range for one last rally, and the one that won a state crown.
“That’s unbelievable,” said Verderame. “These kids, every time, comeback kids. I can’t say enough about the hearts — hearts of champions.
“Down to our last out there. Andrew Owsianko: a kid that was cut from Bristol, moved to Southington. Everybody gave up on him, but he came up with the big hit.
“That’s been the story of our season. We’ve got kids who everybody gave up on, but we didn’t give up on ourselves. Sometimes champions aren’t always the fastest or flashiest, but we stayed true to our basics, which were strength, endurance and character. These kids have a lot of character.”