NEW BRITAIN >> The struggles of a tough regular season schedule may finally be paying off for the Norwich Free Academy baseball team.
The 28th-seeded Wildcats played out-of-conference games this season against Class L No. 1 seed Bristol Eastern, Class LL No. 3 seed Darien and Class LL No. 1 seed and three-time defending state champion Amity to prepare for this very moment.
So the trip to No. 5 seeded New Britain on Tuesday for the first round of the Class LL state tournament didn’t overwhelm the Wildcats.
NFA took advantage of three errors in the first inning and tacked on another run in the fourth to come away with a 2-1 win at Beehive Stadium and live to play No. 21 Wilton on Tuesday.
“We tried to play a good schedule,” Norwich Free Academy coach Luke Gabordi said. “We tried to play the best teams we could and I think we got better because of it.
“At the end of the regular season our record wasn’t so great. But I think that our guys know we’re a good ball team and we can beat whoever’s on the other side of the field if we play well.”
Which is why the players didn’t see this win as an “upset.”
“We were both evenly matched teams going into it,” Grant said. “If teams looked at us and just said, ‘Oh, they’re 9-11, they’re probably awful,’ then they didn’t really look at the real us. They didn’t look at the schedule we played.”
The Wildcats lost nine of their last 12 regular season games, just snuck into the Eastern Connecticut Conference tournament as the No. 7 seed and then went on a roll winning four straight games to claim the ECC title. They have now won five in a row matching their longest win streak of the year.
And starting pitcher Andy Grant was a big reason why NFA won on Tuesday.
He threw a complete game 4-hitter with nine strikeouts and didn’t issue a walk.
“He did an excellent job,” Gabordi said. “Hit spots, mixed pitches. I’m happy for him.”
But it was also three uncharacteristic errors by New Britain in the top of the first that got Norwich Free Academy going.
The first batter of the game, Griffen Gooden, started things off with a hard ground ball to usual sure-handed freshman shortstop Daniel Rivera who backed up and the ball bounced off his body as Gooden reached base. Caleb Bierman followed with a single to right off New Britain starter Will Homar and as Gooden was going first to third, Lewis Robinson overthrew everybody trying to get the runner at third.
New Britain third baseman Justin Lawson seemed to make the play that would get the confidence back in his teammates as he dove to make a stop on Cameron Milton’s hard grounder and threw Gooden out at home. But two batters later another ball was thrown away and the first NFA run came in.
“It’s weird,” New Britain coach Roberto Mercado said. “I mean we were very loose the beginning of the game, everything was kind of normal. We had a good BP. There was nothing really different, it was just one of those things.
“The kids have to go out an execute and made a couple mistakes and good teams are going to take advantage of it. That was obviously the different in the ballgame.”
With the bases loaded, Robert Thorburn hit a ground ball to third, Lawson threw home to get the force out. But catcher Tyler Gibbs pivoted and threw over Thorburn running to first and the ball sailed into right field allowing Milton to jog home.
“It was good to get a win,” Gabordi said. “And anytime you get a win in a tournament, it goes without saying it’s a good thing to do. But, we really could have taken more advantage in that first inning, we gave them some outs, we didn’t take extra bases.
“So I’m happy we won the game, I thought we played very well overall, but had we ended up losing the game we would have looked back on that first inning and said we left some runs on the board right there.”
And with the way Grant was pitching, the one run could have been enough if it wasn’t for one outlier inning.
“We couldn’t really get anything going,” New Britain coach Roberto Mercado said. “He pitched a great game against us. Got to give him all the credit. We’re seen some tough lefties throughout the season — and he did a great job. He kept us off-balance and we didn’t get a big hit a couple times we got a couple guys on and we didn’t put pressure.”
New Britain got its one run in the bottom of the fourth when Alex Silva reached on an error, went to second on a passed ball, third when he tagged up and scored on a wild pitch. Other than him, no other New Britain runner touched third base.
“Honestly it was all on the other team,” Grant said. “Them being aggressive led to me being able to get ahead in counts and just throw whatever I needed to do to get them out.”
NFA took a 2-0 lead in the fourth when Thorburn doubled to lead off the frame, moved over to third on a fly ball and scored when Brody Adams singled him in.
Homar went all seven innings, allowed two runs — one earned — struck out five and walked one while giving up seven hits.
Norwich Free Academy 2, New Britain 1
Norwich Free Academy: 100 100 0 — 2 7 1
New Britain: 000 100 0 — 1 4 3
(at Beehive Stadium)
Batteries: NFA — Andy Grant (W) and Cameron Milton; NB — Will Homar (L) and Tyler Gibbs.
2B: NFA — Robert Thorburn, Andy Grant.
RBI: NFA — Brody Adams.
SB: NB — Justin Lawson.
CS: NFA — Brody Adams (by Gibbs).
Sacrifices: NFA — Colby Jakan (Bunt), Bryan Caisse (Bunt); NB — Tyler Gibbs (Fly).
Team records: Norwich Free Academy 14-11; New Britain 16-5.