AMERICAN LEGION: Southington, Cheshire go separate ways for Super Regionals with eye on a collision in state finals

AMERICAN LEGION: Southington, Cheshire go separate ways for Super Regionals with eye on a collision in state finals

BRISTOL — It may not be Connecticut’s American Legion team to beat this summer, according to the seedings, but Southington’s Post 72 is the defending state champion.

That’s a fact Southington general manager and coach Bob Kalvinek was quick to point out on the eve of the state tournament’s Super Regionals, which will be co-hosted by Meriden at Ceppa Field and South Windsor at Rotary Field

Friday night, the state’s remaining eight U19 American Legion teams gathered at Bristol’s Post 2 for an informal meeting. When it was Kalvinek’s turn to speak, he stood up and proudly proclaimed:

“We are the defending state champs and we are going to take you all on.”

Kalvinek’s words drew laughs from the other coaches and GMs seated in the room. But his words weren’t without merit.

Southington is indeed the defending champ after beating Ellington for last year’s U19 championship. This year, Post 72 has hit its stride at the right time to advance to the Super Regionals.

Post 72, which swept through Pod C with a 3-0 record to improve to 20-7, begins Northern Division Super Regional play Saturday in South Windsor against No. 2 seed Waterford (21-7) at 1 p.m. Southington is seeded third.

Post 72 advanced by beating Niantic, Berlin and top-seeded RCP in Pod C.

Another reason for Kalvinek’s confidence: 12 of Post 72’s players were on last year’s title team.

“Just like last year, it seems like they’ve just gelled,” Kalvinek said. “We technically came in third place in Zone 1 [behind Bristol and Simsbury], but the kids feel like they are state champs. They are proud, and they have to beat us.

“We are feeling good. We are starting to get together,” Kalvinek added. “[We] are experienced. Some are back from college which helps, and we went into this year thinking we had a good chance and still think we do, but there is a lot of good competition out there.”

The best — at least on paper — of the other seven remaining teams just happens to rival Cheshire, which enters its Southern Division Super Regional opener Saturday at Ceppa Field against Naugatuck at 4 p.m. with a state-high 25 wins. Post 92 (25-3) rolled at home this past week in Pod E, beating Danbury and Stratford on 2-1 walk-offs before routing Danbury 10-0 in five innings in Wednesday’s title game.

Hamden (23-6) and Stamford (24-4) will get things going at Ceppa on Saturday at 1 p.m. In South Windsor, Bristol’s Post 2 (24-7) is the top seed and plays West Hartford (18-9) on Saturday in the second game at Rotary Field at 4 p.m.

There is a scenario that could see both Southington and Cheshire represent Connecticut at the New England regional tournament. Unlike a season ago, when Southington beat Cheshire in 13 innings in the Southern Division Super Regional final, the teams are in separate brackets this time around. Should Post 72 and Post 92 win their respective Super Regionals, both would advance to the state tournament at Ceppa Field next weekend and both would move on to the New England tourney as the state’s champion and runner-up.

But that’s a long way off.

“We are just thinking about tomorrow,” Cheshire GM Bob Kelsey said.

Still, this Cheshire team has a good chance of bringing Post 92 its first American Legion state crown since 2014.

Kelsey has watched this group of Cheshire players excel at the American Legion and high school levels. The core of Post 92 won a state championship as high school juniors and advanced to the state semifinals this year as seniors. Post 92 won its ninth straight zone championship this summer.

Not to be outdone, several of Post 72’s players played for a state championship as seniors at Southington High School a couple months ago.

So success isn’t new for either team.

“This group just loves the game,” said Kelsey, who coach Post 92 throughout the 1990’s and has remained with the program as its GM. “The main thing about this team is not only have they been playing together since they were young, but they are one of the better defensive teams I’ve seen — not only at Cheshire, but in the state. And that’s one of their biggest assets.”

“They are very confident team, but they were like that last year [before losing to Southington].”

Once again, both Cheshire and Southington feature solid pitching and clutch hitters.

Ben Shadeck, who played at the University of New Haven last season, anchors a Cheshire starting rotation that includes Robert Roles and Michael Bankowski. Shadeck was a key pitcher when Cheshire High won the 2018 state Class LL title and hasn’t lost this summer as a starter for Post 92.

Not to be outdone, Bankowski figures to be the next Cheshire High star next season. He tossed a 1-hitter in Post 92’s pod-clinching 10-0 win over Danbury.

Southington’s will likely start Nicholas Borkowski in Saturday’s opener. Borkowski, who shined at Xavier High School this past season, threw four scoreless innings in this week’s 11-1 win over Berlin.

Post 72 will also send Jason Krar and Ryan Henderson to the mound as starters in the Super Regionals. Henderson, last year’s mound hero, pitched Post 72 to the Super Regionals on Thursday and started as a senior for Southington High in the Blue Knights’ state title game loss to Staples.

Offensively, Post 72 welcomed back Jeremy Mercier from college. Mercier’s grand slam beat Cheshire in their epic Super Regional encounter a year ago. All Mercier did in his last at-bat this year was hit a walk-off double in the Pod C final against RCP.

Mercier also pitches for Post 72, while Bryce Worth, Jake Romano and Kyle Leifert’s bats have gotten hot at the right time for Southington.

Cheshire, meanwhile, has simply beat up teams all summer. Leading the way is Ben Schena, who hit over .340 as a freshman at Endicott College this year.

Ian Battipaglia, Ryan Cyr, Paul Villecco and Ryan Strollo have also anchored a lineup that features six players that played on Cheshire’s state high school title team.