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Meriden’s Dirt Dogs lament Tri-Town meltdown

MERIDEN — The champions of the Meriden Amateur Softball Association ‘A’ Division playoffs were hoping the annual Tri-Town Tournament would provide a challenging prelude for their trip to the nationals.

But what was once a tradition-rich local event will not be played this year because neither Wallingford nor Southington was able to field a team.

Therefore, Meriden’s slugging Davidson Company Dirt Dogs will not be getting the competition they desired. As late as Thursday night, the parks departments from the suburban towns were scrambling to come up with ‘B’ Division replacements, but their effort fell short.

“I wanted the best from both towns,” said John Sokolis, Dirt Dogs player/manager who is prepping his squad for the ASA National Tournament on Labor Day weekend in Columbus, Ohio. “I don’t want to see two teams that don’t push us.”

Pushing the Dirt Dogs would have taken some doing. They finished in a second-place tie with four-time champion Bender’s Plumbing/Double Play Café during the regular season, but capped the playoffs with an astounding 34-32 win over regular-season champion Gonzalez Construction in the second of a best-of-3 series.

Gonzalez led by as many as 17 runs early in the slugfest. Davidson needed six runs in the home fifth to avoid the invoking of the mercy rule (12-run lead after 5 innings) and scored eight.

The Dirt Dogs trailed by eight going into the home ninth when they rallied to win. Sokolis’ son Zak Sokolis, who plays baseball at Albertus Magnus, cracked a three-run walk-off homer.

“It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” said the father/manager. “I’m 42, he’s 21. How many chances like this do you get? It’s a real father-son moment.”

As for the meaning of Tri-Town tradition for the over-40 set, John Sokolis pointed to his 47-year-old pitcher Stef DeStefano, whose plight defines the sadness of an institution passing into oblivion.

“He had never won the ‘A’ Division, and the other thing on his bucket list was to play in the Tri-Town because it’s the best of the best,” Sokolis said. “We fought to get into the tournament and now we’re not even playing.”

If Southington and Wallingford had managed to muster ‘B’ teams, the Dirt Dogs weren’t likely to go easy on them.

“We have to make a statement that ‘A’ teams have to come,” Sokolis said. “We sometimes struggle when we play down to the competition and we can’t settle for 10-5 games. This was our last tune-up before we go up against the best 12 teams from [all the participating states] at the Nationals.”

The Dirt Dogs are 52-19 overall and have won 20 of their last 24 starts. They finished fifth in the ASA District Tournament, fourth in the states and second in the competitive Jimmy V Tournament in North Haven.

Davidson’s leading hitter is first baseman/outfielder Jeff Milner, who has posted what Sokolis calls “video-game like numbers” – a .703 batting average with 54 homers and 174 RBI. DeStefano is batting .585 and has punched out 161 hits.

Wallingford outfielder Brian Joy, one of only two Dirt Dogs from outside Meriden, has 32 homers and 132 RBI. The only other outsider is middle infielder Pat Dornfried from Berlin.

The power continues through first baseman Dan Mazzacaro (23 HR) and third baseman/outfielder Scott Rowe.

“Scott Rowe is as pure a hitter as I’ve ever coached in baseball or softball,” Sokolis said. “He can hit the ball to all fields and has plenty of power when it’s called for. He hit three three-run homers in the championship game.”

Shortstop Kris Hewitt anchors the infield defense, which Sokolis says the Dirt Dogs stress more than most slow-pitch squads. Zak Sokolis and John Wilson are defensive aces in the outfield.

The Dirt Dogs also have “a solid mix of veterans” in pitcher Larue Graham, second baseman Doug Berger and catcher Frank Sims.

Berger played softball with legendary state champion Check King for many years and Sokolis called his addition “a huge pickup for us.”

Graham, a city councilman, has been president of the Jack Barry Little League for 25 years and also coaches with the Meriden Raiders Pop Warner football organization.

“He came up to me after the season and thanked me,” John Sokolis said. “He was going to retire but he’s thinking about playing next year.”

The work of Sokolis and the vocal influence of Sims have kept the Dirt Dogs enthusiastically moving toward Tri-Town tradition while resolve in the suburbs has melted away.

“It’s sad,” Sokolis said. “I’ve put my heart and soul into this. We just wanted one good test.”

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