The Fairfield Prep baseball team has qualified for the Southern Connecticut Conference tournament for the fourth-consecutive year. But unlike the previous three appearances, the Jesuits will have to play their quarterfinal game on the road.
Entering its final regular season game with Cheshire on Monday, Fairfield Prep is 11-8 overall, 5-3 in the SCC Quinnipiac after graduating 11 seniors from last year who helped the Jesuits to back-to-back 17-3 seasons and an appearance in the 2015 SCC championship game.
Among those that needed to be replaced this season were last year’s batting leader Simon Whiteman and pitchers Dan Schmedlin and Kevin Stone.
“We had to replace a number of guys who had been starters for two or three years,” Fairfield Prep coach Rudy Mauritz said. “Which either meant that we were young at spots or inexperienced at spots.”
The Jesuits started the season 1-3, but then won six of their next nine, including an SCC-FCIAC Challenge win over Norwalk. They also handed Hamden one of its two losses this season after the Green Dragons had shut out Fairfield Prep 4-0 on April 13.
And through the ups and downs, the Jesuits have learned, grown and improved their way back into the SCC tournament field.
“A lot of it was figuring out what it’s like playing varsity baseball,” Mauritz said. “Learning the way that we like to play and especially learning how the game is played in the Southern Connecticut Conference.”
Mautitz feels like his schedule was on the tougher side of average especially after adding FCIAC power Trumbull along with Don Bosco Prep (NJ) and, although both those games were losses, Mauritz believes the games were good for his young team.
Heading into Monday, Fairfield Prep had played five games against teams that at some point during the season were ranked in the GameTimeCT/New Haven Register Top 10 poll. In those games, the Jesuits are 3-2 with splits vs. Hamden and Sheehan and the win over Norwalk.
Four of the Jesuits eight losses, including a 7-6 defeat by Sheehan, have come by one run.
“I believe we’ve had really challenging schedule,” Mauritz said. “Combined with a team that’s relatively new, you’re going to hit some bumps and you’re going to run the risk of losing some tight games, which we did. In the end I think those are experiences that made us stronger and made us bear down a little bit more, become a little bit more competitive and that’s what we needed.”
A couple of the players who have stepped up at the varsity level this season are junior pitcher Karl Johnson and sophomores Will Lucas at third base and Joe Mancini at second base.
Johnson has a 5-0 pitching record with a sub-1.00 ERA and is striking out more than a batter per inning according to Mauritz. Lucas has played solid at third base for the Jesuits. But it’s Mancini who has really embraced his starting role, Mauritz said.
Five or six games into the season, Mancini was inserted and hasn’t left. Mauritz said he’s hitting around .320 and has been one of the team’s better releivers.
“I knew they were talented,” Mauritz said of his underclassmen. “They made the adjustment to playing at the varsity level and are doing a good job and luckily they are guys that will be here for a couple more years.”
But right now all the Jesuits are looking at is the SCC tournament where they will be the No. 5 seed and travel to No. 4 Cheshire on Tuesday for the quarterfinals.
“What’s really great about this tournament and where it falls is we are able to play a competitive game tomorrow, a week ahead of the state tournament,” Mauritz said. “If we win that game we earn the right to play another competitive game a week before the state tournament and that’s big.”
New Milford vying for first SWC title since 2004
With just a quick glance at the New Milford baseball roster you see a lot of “12s,” the number signifying seniors.
With 15 seniors all, first-year head coach Ryan Johnson know he had some experience, but didn’t quite know how the talent would shake out.
Twenty-two games later Johnson’s team is on the brink of capturing the school’s first South-West Conference title since 2004.
Johnson took over at New Milford when coach John Wrenn retired after 35 years. Johnson instilled an intense coaching style modeled after Porky Vieira, whom he played for at the University of New Haven in 1998-99.
His players — who had gone 8-9 the year before — have quickly bought in.
“We went to New Canaan (in the season opener) and won 2-1,” Johnson said. “[The team] looked at me and I said, ‘See, you have to start believing.'”
The wins started to add up and when the regular season ended last week the Green Wave had amassed 16 victories, the most in the regular season since at least 2008.
“It’s a lot of senior leadership,” Johnson said. “A lot of talented players. My one through five hitters, which are all seniors, are all hitting over .430 and it’s made it a little easier for me to be a head coach when you have guys like that.”
The Green Wave have lost just four games this season and none consecutively. It was a 6-3 loss to Brookfield in the second half of the year that had to get the team refocused. “No one thought we should have lost,” Johnson said.
But the team that has essentially been playing with each other since they were eight or nine years old came back together and earned the No. 3 seed in the SWC tournament.
“We were in every game that we played,” Johnson said. “And their eyes got wider and wider with every win that we had.”
And its been the seniors the whole way. From carrying water and helmets, to cleaning out the dugout after games, Johnson said the players have been humbled, but the ‘family’ and ‘band of brothers’ mentality has carried them this far, now it’s time to test it out in the postseason.
“They want to go for a state run and an SWC run as much, if not more, than I do,” Johnson said.
Cheshire Academy wins WNEPBL championship
For the first time in league history, the Cheshire Academy Fighting Cats won the Western New England Prep Baseball League Championship (WNEPBL).
Mike Dunn and Tommy Costello fueled a comeback 3-1 win over the Berkshire School on Sunday. David Stiehl of Manchester was the winning pitcher.
— David Stiehl (@david_stiehl) May 22, 2016