By Mike Madera and Dave Phillips
There was some consistency at the top of the Zone II standings this summer with Branford and Orange leading the way.
Branford won its fifth consecutive straight Zone II regular season crown and knocked off Orange in three games in a classic Southern Division Sectional championship series. Branford went on to the state tournament before falling short of having a chance to repeat its state and Northeast Regional titles.
There was also an up-and-coming Stratford team, which was able to get its top players to break away from AAU baseball and played American Legion baseball in 2014. Stratford finished third in the zone and was the only team to beat Branford in zone play.
Meanwhile, New Haven came back to Legion baseball for the first time since 2009 and reached the state tournament.
Now, with all the games completed and the statistics in the books, we come to celebrate the players of Zone II with our 15th annual Dream Dozen.
Selecting this team is always a tough thing. Given the talent level in Zone II, we easily came up with a long list of players worthy of consideration but whittling it down to 12 players was a grueling process — and a necessary one to find the best.
It takes a special player to make the Dream Dozen.
Reputation does not matter. Only this season was taken into account. In fact, there are only two repeat selections to this year’s team.
Regular readers know that the Dream Dozen isn’t solely about the most talented players, or the ones who put up the biggest numbers.
We’re looking for players that help their team win.
And in Legion ball, that means showing up and working hard every day. It also means doing what is asked, being flexible, playing multiple positions and even taking the ball when your coach asks you to (or asking for the ball).
Clutch hits, making your mark in multiple facets of the game, is another sure way to get yourself consideration for our team.
We may not have all of the best athletes or the kids that throw the hardest, but good luck trying to beat us.
But what makes an Elm City Newspapers’ Zone II All-Star player better than the rest?
Here’s what we came up with:
1. Superior Athletic Ability
Is a certain player head and shoulders above the rest of the players in the league? Can he balance solid offensive numbers, as well as gaudy pitching statistics or outstanding defensive ability?
More than likely, if you don’t play more than one position, don’t expect to find yourself on our team. Having multiple roles helps, especially if pitching is one of them. Only three players on this year’s team did not pitch at some point during the season.
Through the endless schedule of summer games, does a player give everything he has each time he takes the field? For example: is a pitcher willing to come in whenever he’s needed, even if it’s on consecutive days or on both games of a doubleheader? Will a catcher bear the brunt of heavy, sweaty equipment and a constant barrage of wear and tear on his body to continue producing day in and day out?
Can a team win if it doesn’t have this player in the lineup? Or, in hindsight, would a team have fared as well if this player wasn’t on the team? If you were a true impact player, chances are you made the cut.
This list contains our picks for the top 12 players in Zone II.
Although there were many deserving candidates, only a select few can call themselves a member of our team.
And now, here is the 2014 Dream Dozen:
Mike Appel, P-RF, Orange
By Mike Madera
Mike Appel may have missed most of his high school season with an ankle injury, but it did not stop him from being a force in the summer season. Fresh off a state title with Amity, Appel took his talents to Post 127 and did not disappoint.
Whether it was on the mound as a solid starter or in right field making the hardest fly balls look routine, Appel was one of the leaders of an Orange team which finished second in Zone II action. Not only did Appel lead on the field, but he was usually one of the first players getting everyone motivated in the dugout as well.
“He matured this year,” Orange coach Bob Mirto said. “He was a leader this year. He was very mature and he kept others in line. He demanded a lot of himself and everyone else. It was a big transition from how laid back he was previously.”
One of Orange’s top starters on the hill, Appel seemed to get stronger as the games went along. Mixing an array of pitches, including a sharp curve, Appel used his baseball instincts to get the best of most batters.
Pitching in eight games, Appel threw 35 innings, finished with a 5-1 record and an earned run average of 1.00. Appel allowed 20 hits, just five earned runs and struck out 40.
“He had an outstanding year,” Mirto said. “He is a pitcher with not a lot of pitching experience. He will get better and better. He threw hard and he had a good curve.”
In the field, Appel was just as solid. Appel’s ability to read the pitching battery and his understanding of the game seemed to always put him in the right position.
With 48 chances, Appel made just one error for a fielding percentage of .979. The Orange right fielder finished with 44 putouts and three assists.
“He was very good out there for us,” Mirto said of Appel’s defense. “He knew how to shade hitters. He knew where the catcher was setting up was probably going to be a good idea of where the ball was going. He has really good instincts and a tremendous arm.”
Offensively, Appel was one of the main threats in the lineup for Post 127. Hitting in the middle of the order, Appel continually had big hits.
Appel finished the summer season tied for fourth on the team with 29 hits and tied for first with 25 singles. He drove in 13 runs, scored 15, and finished with a .299 batting average, a .364 on base percentage and a .361 slugging percentage.
“He has probably the fastest hands at the plate,” Mirto said of Appel’s hitting. “I have had college coaches tell me he has phenomenal hand speed at the plate. He has that quickness to the ball. He is only going to get better.”
Vin Backert, P-3B, Shelton
By Dave Phillips
If you want to pinpoint one game for a reason why Vin Backert is part of this summer’s Dream Dozen, go back to a long night at Shelton High School on July 16.
Backert threw over 120 pitches and pitched 12 innings without allowing a run against eventual Zone 2 champion Branford. Over those 12 innings, Backert allowed just four hits and walked just two in a game Shelton needed badly to try and qualify for the state tournament.However, Branford won it, 1-0, in 15 innings.
For the season, Backert was 4-0 in 42 innings with 29 hits for Post 16, which finished 14-16 and fell one game shy of qualifying for the state tournament.
“If his arm was too tired after pitching, I used him as the DH,” said Shelton coach Steve Boles.
At the plate, Backert hit .313 with 10 runs batted in while playing third base in his third season of Legion baseball.
“He’s a quiet kid, but he would drive the ball and give us extra bases,” said Boles. “He had some key hits at the beginning of the season. He made an impact on our team both with his bat and pitching. He was consistent.”
As a freshman, Backert was also named to the North Atlantic Conference All-Conference second team at New England College this past spring.
Shawn Blake, 1B, Stratford
By Mike Madera
Quick hands. Great footwork. Never gets cheated.
Those are great attributes for any player. For Stratford’s Shawn Blake, those characteristics allowed him to be one of the best first basemen in the zone.
At the plate, Blake was a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the Stratford lineup. On the field, he was a secret weapon, preventing errors and helping the pitching staff.
This combination was a main reason Stratford went from a team on the rise to a team on the top of Zone II, finishing behind zone champion Branford and second place Orange.
“Having him in the lineup gave us a formidable, three, four, five in the order,” Stratford coach Mike DellaVecchia said. “You could see every time he came to the plate, teams would pitch around him. He meant a lot to the team. He hit the ball like a man. Teams really respected him. They would not let him beat them.”
Much is talked about Blake’s presence in the batter’s box. It is his play at first base which is equally impressive as his footwork and quick glove saved numerous errors throughout the year.
“He has great hands at first base,” DellaVecchia said. “He had a lot of picks over there. He saved a lot of errors. The infield was very confident throwing to him. He has such quick hands over there and such good foot work. He always put himself in such a good position where he could adjust to the ball.”
Offensively, Blake was on another level.
The sweet-swinging first baseman finished the season with a .311 batting average, with 23 hits, including tied for the team lead with four doubles. Blake also hit a team-leading six triples and three home runs, led the team with 22 runs scored, was second with 15 runs batted in and had a team leading on base percentage of .500.
Teams were so careful to pitch to Blake he walked a team-leading 24 times and was hit by a pitch four times.
“Of course, there is a lot of pressure in the middle of the lineup,” DellaVecchia said. “The guy just gets on base. You can see the number of walks he had. His on base percentage was very high. He would get his pitch and swing at just his pitch.
“I never saw him get cheated at the plate. He always looked to rip the ball and that is what he did. Pitchers tried to pitch around him or make them hit their pitch, but he was patient enough to hit his pitch.”
How respected was Blake? In a three-game series with Orange to determine second place late in the regular season, Orange had a plan in place on how to pitch to Blake.
Blake had his own plan.
In the first game of the series at Brinley Field in Orange, Stratford trailed by two runs in the third inning. Blake wasted no time as he drilled the first pitch he saw for a long homer to right to even the contest.
In his next plate appearance two innings later with the game still tied and range clearly not wanting to give him something to hit, Blake launched a 3-2 pitch for another line drive home run to right for a lead Stratford never relinquished.
Blake was walked in his final plate appearance of the game and in a 13-inning contest against Orange one day later, Blake was walked four times, including three times after the seventh inning as Orange was not going to let the Fairfield Prep star win the game with one swing.
“He had a pretty even-keel approach,” DellaVecchia said. “He would get mad at himself if he did not have a good at bat, but he never took that out to the field. He had a good way of approaching things. He never hurt us in the field.”
John Decusati, P-UTL, North Haven
By Dave Phillips
One thing was constant in the North Haven lineup this summer — John Decusati was in the lineup somewhere.
Decusati played every inning and at every position but first base and catcher for Coach Charlie Flanagan’s team.
While he played just about everywhere, Flanagan believes shortstop is hi best position.
“He pitched a two-hitter with 11 strikeouts against West Haven and then two days later, I had no one else to play shortstop, so I played him there,” said Flanagan. “He ended up getting six balls hit to him shortstop, but didn’t say a word. I told him I was sorry after the game, but he just said that he would ice up when he got home.”
Decusati hit .282 with 24 runs batted in and compiled a 2-0 record on the mound for Post 76, which had a tough season, finishing 9-21.
“He was a leader for us and was looked up to by the young kids,” said Flanagan. “He delivered a hit when we needed it and pitched a big game when we needed it.”
Decusati played for four years in the North Haven Legion program, first for a year at the Junior Legion level, before moving on to play three summers at the Senior level. He just completed his freshman year at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
“We will miss his consistency,” said Flanagan. “He was a hard working kid who did everything we wanted him to do in his three years.”
Sebastian DiMauro, P-OF, Orange
By Mike Madera
He leads off. He steals bases. He has a cannon for an arm. And, oh by the way, he is the team’s closer as well.
When talking about a player who can do it all, look no further than Orange’s Sebastian DiMauro. Coming off a championship season at Amity High, DiMauro took that success into the summer season and never let up.
With a steady demeanor, DiMauro was a leader of a team which took zone champion Branford to the final out in its best-of-three series.Whether it was in the batter’s box, on the bases, in the outfield or on the pitcher’s mound, DiMauro was sure to give max effort.
“He is a joy to have on the team,” Orange coach Bob Mirto said. “I did not really know him before this season. Once I got to know him, he was a joy. He was intense and always gave one thousand percent.
“He was not a show boat type of kid. He was laid back, but he was the type of kid who plays hard. There is a lot of upside to him.”
Knowing he set the table for the team, DiMauro did exactly what his job called for from the leadoff spot and that was to get on base. With a good eye and quick hands, DiMauro led Orange with a .434 on base percentage, including 29 hits, 11 walks and six hit by pitches.
DiMauro had 22 singles and seven doubles, while driving in 27 runs, which was tied for the team lead. The Orange leadoff hitter hit .326 and had a slugging percentage of .404.
“He knew what his job was,” Mirto said. “He could do it all. He is a good hitter. He steals bases. He is very good.”
Defensively, DiMauro was equally impressive. Controlling the outfield from center field, DiMauro had 58 chances, finishing with 48 putouts, nine assists and doubling off a pair of runners. DiMauro made one error and finished with a fielding percentage of .983.
“He is a great fielder,” Mirto said. “He can track down a fly ball. He has a great arm. He threw a kid out at first this season. He is just a phenomenal player.”
When the game was on the line, DiMauro was there to seal the deal on the mound. The closer threw 20 innings in 10 games, finishing with a 1-1 record and two saves.
“He never warmed up before he relieved,” Mirto said of DiMauro. “He was never sore and if he pitched the next day, he threw harder. He is a phenomenal athlete. He always gave you what he had. He was a terrific team player.”
DiMauro allowed three runs, none of which were earned, while striking out 17 and finishing with an earned run average of 0.00.
In a contest with Stratford to determine second place at the end of the regular season, DiMauro was called on to relieve in a game which went 13 innings. Going beyond his normal role as a closer, DiMauro tossed three scoreless innings in a game eventually won by Post 127.
DiMauro was most impressive in a postseason game against Meriden. With his team up by one run, DiMauro needed just nine pitches to record three outs, including a pair by way of strikeout.
Kyle Hart, CF, Branford
By Dave Phillips
There is no question that Kyle Hart was the best defensive center fielder in Zone 2 this summer.
His offensive statistics weren’t too shabby, either.
Hart, who missed a handful of games in July with a sprained wrist, hit a robust .530 and had a staggering .608 on-base percentage. He drove in 26 runs as well.
When Hart was out due to the wrist injury, Post 83 had a tougher time offensively.
“Clearly, he was in the top two or three top players in the zone,” said Branford coach Rich Balzano. “When you take a kid out of the lineup with a .600 on base average, you’ll struggle.”
Balzano put Hart up there with any of the top center fielders in his 10 years at the helm of Post 83.
“He may go down as one of the best along with Karl Derbacher and Brian Monack,” said Balzano. “He falls right in with those two. but he runs balls down defensively no one else runs down. And he has a throwing arm as strong as anyone.”
Hart was a player who would hit the ball to whatever side it was pitched. If a pitch was outside, he would take it to left field.
“He focuses on contact and hits the ball with power,” said Balzano. “He’ll gap a ball into left center or right center if he gets the right pitch and he seldom strikes out.
Balzano planned on having Hart pitch this summer, but found that his defense was too valuable to lose.
“He’s so valuable out there in the outfield, we were okay,” said Balzano.
Like Perrelli, Hart will return to UConn-Avery Point for his sophomore season.
Bryon Kucharski, C, East Haven
By Mike Madera
Gritty. Hard-nosed. In control.
When talking about a catcher, those words are music to a coach’s ears. Those same words describe East Haven Post 89’s Bryon Kucharski.
In a summer season which sees over 30 games played in just about 30 days, the East Haven backstop was behind the plate for 90 percent of Post 89’s contests. Always in control and a very good defensive catcher, Kucharski ran the pitching staff and helped lead East Haven to a fourth place finish in Zone II and a berth in the postseason.
Kucharski was so good, pitchers had no fear of throwing off-speed pitches in the dirt, knowing Kucharski was a wall behind the plate.
With a strong arm, Kucharski would set the tone early. An early caught stealing would deter opponents from running, taking some out of their game plan.
“He is hard-nosed,” East Haven coach Joe Pelliccia said. “He came to play every day. He caught most of our games and saw a little time at first base and in the outfield.
“He was good with the pitchers. They trusted him. It was more of the way he handled the pitchers. He would not hesitate to call time and talk to the pitchers. He was very good at blocking balls. A lot of teams would not run on him and that is part of the reputation he had in high school. I liked the way he controlled the game.”
Catching so many innings in such a short time span could easily wear on the legs. For Kucharski, he seemed to get stronger as the season progressed.
The innings logged behind the plate did not affect Kucharski as he hit .438 with four doubles, two home runs and 19 runs batted in.
“He would not swing until he had his pitch,” Pelliccia said of Kucharski. “He is a line drive hitter. He hits the gaps. He has a nice swing. He is a good contact hitter.
“We played as well as our top four hitters. He usually batted fourth. He usually came up with some big hits for us. He came through in the clutch.”
Kucharski had several big hits throughout the season. In a pair of battles against Orange, the East Haven catcher stood out.
In a contest which both teams combined to score 36 runs in an East Haven loss, Kucharski would not go down quietly as he had four hits and scored twice. Then, in a one-run victory over Orange, Kucharski twice gave his team the lead in a much-needed win.
“He did not get out of his game,” Pelliccia said. “I think it was a benefit to us as he stayed calm. He was hard-nosed.
“He was an all-around good person as well as a team player. He was very coachable. That was what I liked. You could coach him and he would listen. I was glad to have him on the team.”
Dylan Millhouse, P, Branford
By Dave Phillips
Branford Post 83 needed another starting pitcher to come up big this summer and on came Dylan Millhouse to fill the bill.
Millhouse, who pitched Hamden Hall to the New England Prep School Athletic Council title with a no-hitter over Providence Country Day in May, became the No. 2 pitcher in the Post 83 rotation this summer after having played AAU baseball in the past.
Millhouse compiled a 7-1 mark with an earned run average of 1.00 in 64 innings. His only loss of the season came in the Southern Division Super Regional of the state tournament when he was beaten by Stamford, 2-0.
“He’s one of those kids who doesn’t show a lot of emotion, but he does his job, is quiet and respectful,” Millhouse said. “He’ll be a successful young man.”
Millhouse got better as the season went on.
“To say he got better is an understatement,” Balzano said. “His start was rough. Then he came back and was spectacular.”
Millhouse also had 60 at-bats as mostly a designated hitter, hitting .311.
“He didn’t hit as much as he would have liked, so we didn’t want to put him in the outfield the day after he pitched,” said Balzano. “He said the second day after he pitched is when his arm hurt the most, but on the third day, we felt we may actually have needed him for an inning.”
Millhouse will play at Wesleyan University next spring and has one year of Legion baseball eligibility remaining.
“I think he’ll wait and see what happens in college and next summer to see if he’ll come back,” said Balzano. “It’s 60 days of hell and he might not want to give up his full summer. That’s a tough adjustment for a lot of kids.”
Nick Perrelli, OF, Branford
By Dave Phillips
It’s rare for a player to be chosen to the Dream Dozen more than once, but Nick Perrelli deserves that honor.
The starting right fielder for Branford Post 83 for the last three summers, Perrelli was part of the program, which went 75-6 in Zone 2 play during that span.
In 2013, Perrelli was 10-for-22 at the plate in the Northeast Regional and collected 13 RBIs. With statistics in the regionals and the World Series combined, only Robert Busse of Petaluma, Calif., had more RBIs (14) than him. Perrelli had just one hit and didn’t drive in a run in the World Series, so it took 11 games for Busse to beat him.
Perrelli built on those postseason statistics to hit .475 with 30 runs batted in 2014 for Post 83.
“Nick is an explosive player,” said Branford coach Rich Balzano. “He had so many big hits over the last three years. He single-handedly beat Orange a few times.”
Balzano also mentioned Perrelli’s work ethic, especially in practice.
“When we take batting practice, we try to follow our batting order, but Nick always asked to hit fifth or sixth,” said Balzano. “He liked to shag Kyle Hart’s fly balls in right field. And when he shags fly balls, he likes to work on his game and doesn’t like anyone near him.
Balzano said that he had planned on using Perrelli on the mound this summer, but after an early season non-zone outing, he hurt his arm throwing a couple breaking balls and gave up pitching.
“He said my pitching career is over,” Balzano joked. “In my mind, Nick has a major league throwing arm from the outfield and you can’t put that at risk.”
Perrelli will return to play at UConn-Avery Point next spring.
Doug Rives, P, Orange
By Mike Madera
Entering the summer season, not many teams on the American Legion circuit may have known who Doug Rives was. Unfortunately for Post 127, Rives is no longer Orange’s well-kept secret.
Using a nasty slider to set up his fastball, Rives burst on the scene rather quickly this summer. While he may have begun the season behind other more experienced starters, he ended the campaign as one of Orange’s top throwers and go-to guys on the mound.
“He was terrific,” Orange coach Bob Mirto said. “He was absolutely phenomenal out there. I thought he was the real deal. So many teams struggled to hit off him.”
How far did Rives come along? While he may have started the season on the back end of the rotation, he was front and center when Post 127 needed him the most.
Battling Stratford in the final week of the season, Rives pitched seven scoreless innings in a game Stratford needed to win for second place. Behind the performance of Rives, who threw 62 of his 80 pitches for strikes and allowed just three hits, Orange won the contest in 13 innings.
Rives continued his solid pitching through the postseason. In the opener of the best-of-three series with Branford, Rives tossed a gem, allowing five hits and striking out seven, to lead Orange to a shutout victory.
“He did not start off as one of our top pitchers, but he certainly ended as one,” Mirto said. “He seemed to pitch all the big games for us at the end. He ended up pitching significant innings for us.
“Against Stratford, he threw seven scoreless innings. We had to win that game for second place. Then, he shuts Branford out. He put us in position to win that series. He threw two very big games for us and he did not have a pulse out there. He was calm and collected.”
In eight games this summer, Rives finished with a 7-0 record, allowing just seven earned runs in 51 innings and finishing with an earned run average of 0.96. Rives allowed just 28 hits and struck out 53.
Rives, who used his slider to keep batters off balance, finished with a WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) of 0.84.
“It seemed as if the hitters had no shot at times against him,” Mirto said. “That slider looked like a fast ball. He used that slider to set up his fastball. The fastball appeared to be much harder after the slider. He is a pretty intelligent pitcher.
“I would describe him as a scientific type kid. He has phenomenal grades. The way he would intellectualize the game was kind of amazing for me. He is smart, very smart. He never got rattled.”
Mike Schettino, P, Branford
By Dave Phillips
Mike Schettino’s tenure as the ace of the Branford staff in 2014 really took hold in the 2013 American Legion World Series.
As the No. 4 starter in 2013, Schettino got into both of Branford’s games in the 2013 Legion World Series, not allowing a run.
According to Branford coach Rich Balzano, it made a huge difference in the confidence and leadership Schettino showed this summer.
“He was the most animated of the senior level players,” said Balzano. “He was pretty vocal and had a burning desire to get into the tournament and do some damage.”
Of Branford’s four losses this summer, Schettino was pinned with three of them. But that statistic is misleading as Schettino dueled with the top teams and pitchers. Two of the losses came at the hands of Orange and Cheshire in the state tournament, while the other came to Stratford, which went 21-9 in Zone 2 play.
“We never seemed to give him any runs,” said Balzano.
Schettino finished with a 7-3 record but had a 1.25 earned run average and struck out 72 batters in 72 innings.
Among his finest performances of the season was a seven-inning relief stint in Shelton on June 16. He came on in the ninth inning in relief of Dylan Millhouse and didn’t allow a hit in what turned out to be a 1-0 Branford victory in 15 innings.
Schettino played some infield in each of his first two seasons for Branford.
“In high school, he was an infielder and a pitcher, but here he basically became a pitcher,” said Balzano. “But every time we needed him, he was ready. We were thin against New Haven, so we put Mike at second base and he made a backhanded stop up the middle and on his knees made the throw to first to get a kid. I’m not sure any of our regular infielders make that play.”
Schettino will return to play at UConn-Avery Point next spring.
Chris Winkel, 1B-OF, Orange
By Mike Madera
When the word clutch is used, one name has to come to mind. That name belongs to Orange Post 127’s Chris Winkel.
On a team which won 23 games in the regular season before losing to Branford in a two-out-of three series, Winkel delivered time and time again. Statistics may not always tell the real story, but in Winkel’s case, they surely do not lie.
“He is a phenomenal player,” Orange coach Bob Mirto said of Winkel. “He has a really exciting upside. He will continue to get better. It is exciting to see where that will lead.”
Winkel, who will enter his junior campaign at Amity High, was relentless from the start, hitting what seemed to be line drive after line drive. Play him to pull and he would hit a rocket to left. Shade him to left and he would hit a laser to the gap in right center.
“He squares mostly everything up,” Mirto said. “He is working on his inside pitches. Once he learns to do that, he will be really tough to get out.”
Playing in 30 games, Winkel compiled some amazing statistics as he tied or led the team in eight offensive categories. Winkel led the team with 38 hits, 17 doubles, two triples and 26 runs batted in.
Tied for the team lead in homers with fellow Dream Dozen selection Mike Appel with one apiece, Winkel also led the team with a .355 batting average and a .579 slugging percentage, while placing third on the team with a .403 on base percentage.
“He was outstanding,” Mirto said.
Winkel wore pitchers down throughout the year with quality at bats. In the postseason against Naugatuck, Winkel made his presence felt with two doubles, four runs batted in and one run scored, helping Post 127 advance.
The versatile Winkel, who played the outfield and first base, was just as solid in the field. With 134 total chances, Winkel committed just one error for a team-leading .993 fielding percentage among players who had at least 100 chances. Winkel had 126 putouts, seven assists and he turned six double plays.
“He is a phenomenal fielder,” Mirto said. “He made some very good backhand stops at first which he turned into double plays. He is a very mature defensive player. He has great instincts. He is the real deal.”
Vinnie Salzo contributed to this story