One thing has been proven over the last 20 years in Connecticut American Legion baseball — it’s impossible to repeat.
And with Branford Post 83 failing to repeat as champions this summer, it will be 22 seasons since East Hartford repeated in 1991 and 1992.
In fact, many coaches feel it may be harder to win the Connecticut championship than to win the Northeast Regional. Connecticut teams have won seven of the last nine Northeast Regional titles.
Branford finished 32-4 this summer after posting a 36-3 record in 2013, which was good enough for a tie for seventh place in the country. Over two seasons, Branford also was 56-1 in Zone 2 play.
In each of the seasons following its appearances (2005, 2007, 2010 and 2013) in the American Legion World Series, Branford has failed to get out of the state tournament.
But what cost Branford in the 2014 state tournament was its inability to hit like it did during the Zone 2 season and in its run to the 2013 Legion World Series. Branford was shut out three times in its six state tournament games, including its final two games in the Southern Division Super Regional.
“We had a nice run this year, but in the last week of the season, we didn’t hit,” said Branford coach Rich Balzano. “We hit the ball hard, but we didn’t get the timely hitting in the last week of the season. For some reason, we didn’t see the ball as well as earlier in the year.”
For some, the season could be considered a disappointment since Post 83 didn’t return to the Legion World Series.
“I would say for the kids it is,” said Balzano, who completed his 10th season at the helm of Post 83. “The kids returning really wanted to go back. You get a taste of the good life there, so it’s a tough pill to swallow. They knew if we got into the regional, we could make some noise.”
Centerfielder Kyle Hart led the team in hitting with rightfielder Perrelli just behind at .495. Perrelli had 27 runs batted in. On the mound, Dylan Millhouse and Sean Halligan led the team in wins.
The regular season in Zone 2 was fairly easy for Branford, which cruised to the title by seven games with its 29-1 record. Orange was second at 22-8. Still, Balzano thought that Zone 2 was down somewhat this year.
“New Haven came within a whisker of beating us twice and Shelton, North Haven and Milford played us tough. Milford was down, but Stratford was up, but it’s funny as on any given Sunday, anyone can beat anyone.”
For the straight season, Branford suffered its only zone loss midway through the season. In 2013, Hamden upset Branford, but the loss was overturned when it was found that Hamden had an ineligible player. In 2014, however, Stratford handed Post 83 its only defeat.
“It’s a compliment that people look to beat us,” said Balzano. “I know everyone gets excited to perform well against us.”
As Zone 2 champion, Branford waited for Southern Division sectional play to complete two rounds to get an opponent in the final best-of-three series. As fate would have it, Branford’s Zone 2 arch rival ended up being Branford’s opponent. Orange won the first game of the series, but Branford came back to win the next two games in a span of five hours the next day.
“The Orange series actually pumped us up,” said Balzano. “We came to the park with a mission, knowing we had to win two. But we knew that Orange was almost out of pitching.”
Branford then beat Berlin, 7-1, in the opening round of the Southern Division Super Regional, but then its bats went silent with 2-0 losses to both Cheshire and Stamford, effectively ending its season.
“The Cheshire loss was a critical loss,” said Balzano. “But the kid on the mound from Stamford (Kevin Stone) was outstanding, but Ross Weiner from Orange was every bit as good and we beat him twice. Some days you come out and get 12 hits and some days one or two. Those pitchers for Cheshire and Stamford didn’t make a lot of mistakes.”
Branford loses four position players going into next summer in outfielders Hart and Perrelli, first baseman Brandon Wynne and second baseman Mike Funaro. Pitcher Mike Schettino also will be gone.
Returning starters will include catcher B.J. Massey, shortstop Tyler Forgione, third baseman Tyler Criscuolo and leftfielder Chris Stankiewicz.
“Pitching-wise we’ll be fine next year,” said Balzano. “Halligan will be bigger and faster and (Dawson) Frawley, (Mike) Keinz and (Dan) Driscoll will be back. We have four pretty good pitchers and if Dylan Millhouse comes back, we’ll be fine. We won’t over power anyone, but we’ll be fine.”
Balzano cut a few players who weren’t able to make the lineup this past season, but should be key contributors next year. Pitcher Dalton Erickson played for Guilford this year, while several others could help Post 83, along with some players from the Branford Junior Legion team that was the Zone 2 runnerup.
“I don’t think the team will be as strong offensively next year,” said Balzano. “We could be solid pitching-wise, but we might take a half a step back. You can’t replace two guys who batted .500 and started for three years.”
If half a step back is it, Branford should be contending again for a regional title in 2015