Two seasons ago, the seeds of the spring of 2019 were planted around FCIAC baseball fields.
St. Joseph started a team comprised of mostly sophomores, struggling early but reaching the CIAC Class M semifinals. Darien rolled out sophomore Henry Williams to start its first game of the state tournament, Westhill started four sophomores with centerfielder Bobby Zmarzlak breaking out for one of the best statistical season in school history and Chad Knight of Staples fired a complete-game five-hitter while launching a two-run home run, leading Staples to the Class LL state title.
It was not hard to see what was coming.
Junior year, the class of 2019 improved, but by the time senior year came, they were ready to dominate the state.
How good was this class in the FCIAC?
Two teams, Staples and St. Joseph, won state titles and incredibly, four players from the league were taken in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft.
The wave of draftees began the day of the state semifinals when Stephen Paolini of St. Joseph was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the fifth round of the draft.
Two days later Knight was taken in the 31st round by the New York Yankees, Montana Semmel of Westhill was picked by the Yankees in the 36th round and Zmarzlak was taken by Baltimore in the 40th round.
Ken Turner of Ledyard, drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 20th round, and Christian Fagnant of East Granby, drafted by Baltimore Orioles in the 39th round, were the only other players taken directly from CIAC schools this spring.
To put it into context, going back to 2000, three total players were drafted by major league teams right out of the FCIAC, Michael Gonzalez of Norwalk and Taylor Olmstead and Kyle Dunster of Greenwich.
In that time state-wide, only one CIAC conference has had more than two players taken in the same season according to Baseball Reference.
Three players were picked from the ECC in 2000: Daniel Coffee of St. Bernard, Tommy Major of New London and Jeremy Terri of Montville.
Two players from the same team have been drafted in the same season twice in that time with two Simsbury players taken in 2018 and two Wolcott players being selected in 2013.
That only includes players taken directly from high school, not players taken from prep schools or those selected after competing in college.
“I have not seen a class in the FCIAC this deep, for sure,” St. Joseph coach Jim Chaves said. “I was texting with (Jack) McFarland about how many great players there are. He had a lot of scouts coming out to his games for Chad, we had scouts coming out for Paolini and you have Montana (Semmel) and (Bobby) Zmarzlak and Henry Williams at Darien. At one point it looked like we could get five or six kids possibly drafted out of one league. For a small state like Connecticut to have one conference to have four players get drafted speaks to how deep and great this class was.”
The pro scouts were indeed out in force at FCIAC games this spring with radar guns and video equipment pointed in the direction of more players than even got drafted.
“It didn’t bother me having them there. I think it actually made me do better,” Semmel said. “It’s awesome that two kids from Westhill got drafted. It was 100% easier having scouts come to watch Bobby (Zmarzlak), too. Going through that at the same time and both of us getting drafted close to each other is really cool.”
Along with the four players drafted, the league is chock full of Division-1 college-bound players.
Knight will attend Duke and Zmarzlak is going to Maryland, but Paolini is taking his shot in the Braves organization. Semmel is yet to decide between the pros and a junior college in Florida.
Scouts also came out to watch Williams at Darien, who will be joining Knight at Duke.
Many teams in the FCIAC had multiple Division I players graduating this spring.
“It’s unreal,” Staples coach Jack McFarland said. “You had four kids drafted. The FCIAC was just loaded and it was real. That St. Joe’s lineup was brutal. It was just one of those years where the FCIAC was kind of unbelievable. “
The talent level around the state has risen over the last 20 years and seems to be still trending up.
While the FCIAC had this senior class, the SCC had a sophomore class this season which very well may surpass what the FCIAC seniors did this year. Only time will tell if four players can get drafted out of that group, but the talent is on par.
One reason for the overall improvement of state players comes from year-round commitment to the sport.
“A big thing is that if you listen to the narrative nationally it is that baseball is kind of a dying sport. I believe there are less kids playing it because they are weeding themselves out. It is such a difficult sport to play, such a mental sport and I think the kids that play now are better,” Chaves said. “I am not into specializing, but they specialize now. They play one sport and they focus on it all year round. They train and do something related to baseball 12 months out of the year. You are seeing the physical skills are much better than they were 15-20 years ago.”
That does not seem to be ending as more and more baseball players choose to focus on just that and it may not be long before we see a conference have five players drafted.