SOUTHINGTON —Think of an athletic program as a garden.
If you provide ample water and nurture it, nature will take its course.
Consider the Southington baseball program. The intangible is human nature. Perhaps it’s overly simplistic to say a happy team is a successful team, but Blue Knights coach Charley Lembo has enriched already fertile ground provided by tradition and productive youth programs, and the blossoms are blooming once again.
Southington (18-3) had only two players returning with meaningful varsity experience, yet stands just two victories away from reaching the Class LL finals for the third time in Lembo’s four seasons. The third-seeded Knights meet CCC cousin Manchester (17-5, No. 6) in the quarterfinals today with first pitch slated for 4 p.m. at John Fontana Field.
Lembo has emerged as state baseball’s answer to Tampa Bay Rays skipper Joe Maddon. He knows what buttons to push to engage young athletes. He comprehends the game, its nuances of strategy, execution and preparation as well as the idiosyncrasies that baseball players have been subscribing to since Connie Mack played for the Meridens.
“We did start a different tradition, but I’m not going to tell you about it until the season’s over,” Lembo said. “There are a number of different things they’ve done, like having dinners over each other’s houses, just so they can be together. These are things that keep the bond.”
A family that works together and eats together, wins together. The players buy into Lembo’s offseason regimen that includes weight lifting and spinning classes (stationery bicycle workouts).
“They’re sweating, it’s hot, but they’re doing it together,” he said.
A look at the statistical compilations and the headlines show that two players in particular are leading the way.
Senior right-hander Joe Rivera, next stop UConn, is 6-0 with an 0.78 ERA. He’s walked 19 and struck out 64 in 54 innings while allowing opposing batters to hit .137.
Junior right fielder Liam Scafariello had to sit out the first 10 games after transferring from Xavier. In the 11 games since, he has hit six home runs and driven in 19 runs, both team highs. He’s batting .500 (16-for-32), has a .585 on-base percentage and is batting .563 with runners in scoring position.
Lembo’s love and appreciation for them are palpable, but baseball is not played by two people, something he likes to stress through example.
“We’ve had a number of players with outstanding seasons, but I believe in team chemistry,” he said. “The most talented team doesn’t always win, but the team with the best chemistry has a good shot.”
Scafariello hit two homers as the Knights rallied from behind to subdue West Haven 6-4 in eight innings on Tuesday. The second blast, which was last seen heading for the Cheshire border, walked the Westies off by plating three runs.
“Strength and power are one part of it. The other part I’m so impressed with is his patience,” Lembo said.
“He’s maturing as a hitter and he’s realized he may not always get a great pitch to hit. On the walk-off, they had to pitch to him because they didn’t want to put the winning on second. That’s why I gave him the green light on 3-0.
“He was fantastic, but Ryan DeAngelo also drove in two runs with a bases-loaded, two-out single to tie the game [in the sixth]. Without Ryan, Liam doesn’t get a chance. He also doesn’t get a chance without [freshman] John Mikosz getting his first varsity hit.”
Mikosz was aboard when Scafariello performed his walk-off wizardry.
The Knights were 8-2 while Scafariello was waiting for his time. They had just come off four straight games scoring double-digit runs when the line-drive hitter with the linebacker’s body came out of the waiting room.
But there was a time when the Knights were 3-2 and had been shut out twice, once by Greenwich in the second game of the season and nine days later in a 1-0 loss to Northwest Catholic. Lembo knew he had to be patient. Just because the program has a tradition didn’t mean the CCC West was going to lie down and wait to be trampled.
“As a coaching staff we talked to the players to change their focus,” Lembo said. “You’ve got to remember we had just two players (Rivera and Brett Shaw) with varsity experience. It happens to every school, but these kids had to find their way. We had to find what they can do at varsity level and I’m very proud of every kid.
“We’ve had some bumps, bruises and a lot of other things to deal with and the kids rallied around each other.”
The stats tell stories of such support.
Joe Daigle is hitting .323 and has pitched five games in relief, compiling a 1.50 ERA and holding foes to a .176 battng average.
Kyle Cole, who earned the win in relief of Rivera on Tuesday, is 7-2 with a 1.48 ERA. Zac Susi is hitting .328 and, like all effective catchers, is the backbone of the defense.
Shaw, Josh Makles, Nick Calabrese, Mike Rogalski, Drew Farkas, Garrett Gugliotti, Adam Wilson, Austin Bumbera, R.J. Parent: All have made significant contributions.
“We’ve done different things with different teams,” Lembo said.
“We’ve had four years with distinctly different personalities, and different talent levels.”
And together they’ve made winners out of all four.