WALLINGFORD >> Last season, Sheehan had one of best pitching staffs in the state. It served the Titans nicely on their way to winning the Class M championship and state’s No. 1 ranking.
Though this year’s staff has had to labor a bit, the defending champs are still alive and kicking in their title defense. And these pitchers have done more than their fair share.
No. 15-seed Sheehan toppled upstart 34th-seed Brookfield 6-2 in the Class M second round Wednesday.
The hero this round was tall righty Jame Judenis, who pitched five scoreless innings of relief and allowed just one hit to keep Sheehan (15-7) from suffering the same fate as East Catholic in the first round. Brookfield stunned No. 2-seeded Eagles the day before.
Judenis, by all accounts, has been working to improve control of his pitches this season. Even though he didn’t start, coach Matt Altieri said it was the senior’s best outing of the season.
“Him coming in like that was huge,” said Sheehan shortshop Sal Gozzo, who had two hits, an RBI and two runs scored as Sheehan advance to Saturday’s quarterfinals vs. Montville, a rematch of last year’s championship game.
“He’s been struggling with his control this year, but he stepped up big in a big spot. It’s win or go home and he did well for us. I’m really proud and glad to move on.”
Altieri said he started junior Nick Cerasale — who threw more off-speed stuff — to see how Brookfield’s lineup would respond. “I wanted them to put the ball in play and see what they could do,” Altieri said. “I knew there’d be hits. I knew they’d score a run.”
Brookfield scored two runs in the first two innings. So Altieri made the switch in the third. “After a couple innings, I just realized that they might not be able to handle James,” Altieri said. “I just thought I’d give them a different look, that a guy who throws a little harder might make the difference.”
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Brookfield only managed three baserunners against Judenis the rest of the way, two on walks. The Bobcats’ only legitimate threat was getting two men aboard in the sixth. But Judenis got Justin Blanchette to line out to Sal Gozzo at shortstop. He retired Brookfield in order — two on strikeouts — in the seventh.
“I’d made a couple of changes to my mechanics and it really helped,” Judenis said of his early-season control issues. “There’s no worse feeling than when you’re struggling. You want to come back and pitch as soon and as well as you can. So I was working real hard fine-tuning my mechanics so I could come back and pitch as well as I did.”
Sheehan’s lineup, meanwhile, tagged starter Alex Loranger with three runs the first inning on an RBI single from Nolan Cloutier and Steve Mirra’s two-run double.
In the fourth, Sal Gozzo and his twin brother Paul had back-to-back RBIs to cap another three-run inning. Both rallies were aided by Brookfield errors.
Blanchette and Mike Centouri had RBIs and catcher John Garizio had two hits and a run scored for Brookfield.
Despite the loss, second-year coach Bryan Muller was proud of what his team accomplished — an 10-13 season, including two victories in the school’s first state tournament appearance since 2011.
“Nobody thought we were going to be here,” Muller said. “I can’t say much more than these are great kids and they fought, came together and changed the (baseball) culture at Brookfield.”
Sheehan now heads to Montville Saturday where it will face last year’s opponent in the state final. Sheehan won 5-0 for its fourth title. “Yeah, they’re going to be wanting us,” Altieri said. “They’re going to be wanting us for sure.”
As long as this Sheehan pitching staff continues to live up to the team’s high standards, the Titans have a good shot at inching closer to defending their title.
“I don’t think we feel pressure,” Judenis said of he and the rest of the pitching staff. “I think we feel the drive to come back and pitch as well as (last year’s staff) did. “
Sheehan 6, Brookfield 2
BROOKFIELD 110 000 0 — 2 5 2
SHEEHAN 300 300 x — 6 8 1
Brookfield: Alex Loranger (L), Mason Blanchette and John Garizio; Sheehan: Nick Cerasale, James Judenis (W, 3) and Stephen Carrano.
2B: Sheehan — Steven Mirra, Paul Gozzo.
Team Records: Sheehan 15-8, Brookfield 10-13