[aesop_character img=”http://www.gametimect.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/jayz.png” caption=”JIMMY ZANOR” align=”right” force_circle=”off”]
CROMWELL >> There will be 3,786 baseball teams competing in the American Legion program this summer. The number is a slight increase from a year ago.
Despite the wave of AAU programs that have cropped up ten-fold over the past decade, American Legion Baseball, which was founded in 1925, is still a national institution. In the East, your local American Legion Post fields teams that are an extension of the high school baseball season. In other parts of the country, where high school programs no longer exist, Legion teams begin play in April and May.
For most of the close to four thousand teams playing this summer, the American Legion World Series in Shelby, North Carolina is nothing but a dream. A distant, unattainable goal. They’re the Cleveland Browns trying to make it to the Super Bowl.
For some, however, the World Series dream is real. It’s alive in places like Midland, Michigan; Brooklawn, New Jersey; Boyertown, Pennsylvania; New Orleans, Louisiana; Eden Prairie, Minnesota; Rapid City, South Dakota; and still buzzing in Chapin-Newberry, South Carolina, where your current national champions reside.
These are Legion baseball strongholds. Big-time programs that expect to compete annually for regional and national titles.
The dream is also real here in our own backyard…thriving in the baseball communities of Rocky Hill, Cromwell and Portland. Connecticut, U.S.A. (While we’re at it, we should also add Branford, whose Post 83 team has made four World Series appearances since 2005 under head coach Rich Balzano, which makes Balzano the Nick Saban of Legion coaches in our state.)
Rocky Hill, Cromwell, and Portland are RCP Post 105. And its’ baseball team will be trying to accomplish something in 2016 that my trusty research assistants say a Connecticut team has never done before: make three consecutive trips to the Legion World Series.
“When I got involved with this 10 years ago I wasn’t thinking about going to the World Series,” RCP general manager Jay Hickey said. “Our goal was always to get to the state tournament. And each year we kept taking more and more steps.”
Under Hickey’s leadership RCP has captured seven Zone 7 championships in nine years, including four straight. They were state runner-ups in 2012 and 2014. And last season they became the first program to capture Senior Legion and Junior Legion state titles in the same year.
“For us, it’s about pitching and defense and we’ve got some good, competitive players,” Hickey said. “It’s also fun to watch the kids become teammates and friends with the kids from other towns.”
It was two years ago that the kids from Rocky Hill, Cromwell, and Portland experienced baseball nirvana.
After losing a tough series against Cheshire in the state finals, RCP earned a rare at-large berth to the Northeast Regional tournament. Playing down the road at Middletown’s Palmer Field, and armed with a “Why not us?” second-chance attitude, Post 105 stunned a group of New England state champions by winning the tourney and becoming one of the eight teams to qualify for the World Series.
RCP lost all three games in Shelby. They were the Little Engine That Could against national powers Brooklawn (N.J.) and Midland (Mich.). But the World Series trip, as well as all the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the games, was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill for RCP’s coaches, players and their families.
“Honestly, there is no baseball like it,” RCP pitcher Cole Ogorzalek said. “It was the best experience all of us have ever been through in baseball.”
Hickey’s assistant TJ Grande became the head coach last summer and RCP didn’t miss a beat. The one caveat was that the at-large berth to the Northeast Regionals was gone. To get back to Shelby, RCP had to win the program’s first state title. They did. As underdogs. Post 105 was playing with a swagger reserved for teams that have tasted World Series competition.
The Northeast Regionals were merely a coronation. I’ll never forget the chants of “RCP…RCP…RCP!” raining from the stands at Muzzy Field as Ogorzalek peered from the mound into catcher Kevin Radziewicz’s glove, Post 105 just outs away from wrapping up a 5-0 win over host Bristol. The celebration following RCP’s second straight regional crown seemed a little surreal.
“It was amazing,” Hickey said. “No one goes to the Series two years in a row.”
RCP became the first Connecticut team to win two straight regional championships since East Hartford in 1991-1992. Post 105 also continued the state’s recent dominance, a Connecticut team having won eight of the last 11 Northeast Regional tourneys.
The World Series was now a twice-in-a-lifetime deal for players like Tommy Seaver, Chris Bouchard, Dave Sevigny, Cory Baldwin, Tucker Lord, Radziewicz, and Ogorzalek.
Despite going 0-3 again – they dropped a 2-1 decision against New Orleans and led eventual national champion Chapin-Newberry (S.C.), 6-0, going into the top of the seventh before Chapin rallied for a 7-6 win – RCP baseball was on the national map.
Baldwin, Lord and Ogorzalek are back this season, along with Austin White, Leo Thomas, Nick Queiroz, Kevin Larkin, Luke Matchett, Danny Ambler and Trevor Whalen. Key newcomers include Roland Thivierge, James Sekorski, Amir Nitowski, Aidan Gagnon, and Sean Melaven.
“We have a great mix of older guys who have played in the World Series and some younger kids,” Grande said. “Our goal is to win the zone. And we can’t take anyone lightly because we’re going to get everyone’s best shot.”
Berlin, which moved from Zone 3, West Hartford, Glastonbury, New Britian, and Tri-County will all have their aces ready for RCP this summer.
“Everyone wants to knock us off,” Hickey added. “But that’s a good thing. It gets the kids ready for the tournament.”
Can the impossible become possible? Will a third straight World Series trip be in the cards for RCP?
“They know they’ve been able to do it in the past and they don’t see any reason to believe why they can’t do it in the future,” Grande said. “It’s a good mindset to have. We’ve had some success over the past few years and yeah, the kids play with a certain confidence. They know if they just play their game they’ll be okay.”
In August, only eight teams from around the country will meet in Shelby.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Hickey said. “But I’ll tell you what…there’s nothing wrong with dreaming about it.”