NEW FAIRFIELD — New Fairfield seniors Matt Garbowski and Braden Quinn feel as if they’ve been transported, scooped from a varsity baseball world they were just getting used to in 2019 and reinserted this year to complete the experience.
With their junior season canceled due to COVID-19, their lives as developing athletes came to include a sophomore-to-senior transition that felt like the simultaneous push of pause and fast-forward buttons. Just getting going in one way, and with one foot out the door in another, these kids with a friendship that pre-dates their memory are adding the final chapter to childhoods spent side-by-side — and, so often in recent years, 60 feet and 6 inches apart.
“They’ve known each other since they were 4,” said New Fairfield coach Joe Garbowski, Matt’s dad.
“We played tee-ball together,” said Matt Garbowski, a catcher.
“We were in the same kindergarten class,” said Quinn, a left-handed pitcher.
Perhaps, come August, they’ll be in a lecture hall or dorm room together in Storrs, when they’re not at Elliot Ballpark or the Rizza Performance Center. Both players are UConn-bound with national letters of intent signed and delivered.
“There’s a value to these kids growing up playing against each other and with each other and then doing that same thing in college,” UConn coach Jim Penders said. “I see that when I go to their weddings, five, 10, 15 years after they leave here. Next to the groom are a bunch of suits who all played for me. There’s something to that. When you go somewhere farther away from home, I don’t know if those bonds are quite the same.”
Garbowski, who throws righty and bats lefty, is among the best catchers in Connecticut. Usually second in the lineup, through Wednesday, he was hitting .371 with two home runs and a team-high 18 RBIs for the Rebels (8-2).
Quinn, a lefthander, is among the best pitchers in the state. He has a 1-1 record, a 1.05 ERA, a five-inning perfect game and 38 strikeouts in 20 innings. Quinn, batting .364 and usually the cleanup hitter, had 14 RBIs and a team-high three homers through Wednesday.
It’s not unheard of, but rather rare, for UConn to target and land a pitcher-catcher battery from the same school. Catcher Connor David and pitcher Max Slade came to UConn from Cheshire High in 2011. Catcher Zac Susi of Southington High arrived at UConn in 2015, a year after pitcher and former high school teammate Joe Rivera. Catcher Larry Day and pitcher Rich Sirois arrived at UConn in 2004 after playing together at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass.
Enter Garbowski and Quinn, a unique pair for their history together — and for their respective climbs to this point.
Both were recruited on potential, with Garbowski committing to UConn after his freshman year and Quinn committing after his sophomore year. Garbowski had a year of varsity experience (as an outfielder) when he made his decision. Quinn was still so slender, all arms and legs after his debut varsity season in 2019.
Then the pandemic hit. They returned this spring as different people — for the passage of time in the absence of a junior season, for the work they put in on their own, even for what one of them went through.
Labor Day weekend of 2019, Garbowski was Jet Skiing on Candlewood Lake and took a nasty fall while trying to land a jump. He swam back to the Jet Ski, came ashore at Chatterton Arena, where he works, and called his girlfriend, saying he felt ill.
Garbowski had a ruptured spleen.
While in the Danbury Hospital emergency room that night, preparing for doctors to load him into a helicopter for emergency surgery in Hartford, he was proudly telling his parents how much air he had caught off the wake. Meanwhile, he had severe internal bleeding — yet his vitals were strong. Normal blood pressure, regular heartrate.
The flight to Hartford never took place, nor did surgery. The first three of Garbowski’s eight days in the hospital were spent in an ICU.
“A miracle,” Joe Garbowski said. “Everything turned out perfect. His spleen is 100 percent recovered. They didn’t have to remove it. Think about taking a hard-boiled egg and throwing it against a wall, where it’s just shattered like that. I don’t like to have that image, but …
“Remarkably, he’s fully healed. It brought itself back together, like Humpty Dumpty put his pieces back together. The thing is fully functional. There’s scar tissue, they said, but that’s normal.”
Garbowski, now 18, missed about three months of school, returning in November for the start of basketball season. He’s a four-year varsity starter in that sport. He also played football prior to his injury but has given that up. There is no risk in his son playing baseball, Joe Garbowski said.
“He was swinging in the cages three weeks after the accident,” Joe said.
All the while, Quinn was putting on muscle. He was 6-feet-3 inches and 180 pounds as a sophomore. He is now 6-3, 210. His heavy fastball was last clocked in March.
“I hit 89 (MPH) seven times in a row,” Quinn said. “I couldn’t hit 90. I feel like I’ve been hitting 90, 91, in games this season.”
Outside of one inning, he has been dominant. He gave up just two hits in his first 18 innings of work this season, but under the rain in a home game against Newtown on Monday he gave up six runs (three earned) in a 9-2 loss.
Afterward, Quinn stood beside Matt Garbowski in a shed adjacent to the field, sheltered from the rain, talking about being too amped up for the type of baseball moment he had so little experience with — a high-profile South-West Conference game against another really good team. Newtown features senior shortstop Jacksen Peterson, another UConn commit.
“You look back at pictures from my sophomore year, the last time I played a baseball season, it’s like a different kid,” Quinn said. “We’ve been waiting since sophomore year to have a game like this. It’s a different feel, for sure. We missed out on big games like this, not having a year.”
Quinn, 17, drew interest from many national programs — Virginia and Notre Dame among them — before choosing UConn.
“He’s going to continue to develop, no question, with Coach MacDonald,” Penders said, referring to UConn pitching coach Josh MacDonald. “Joe really endorsed Braden and it was easy to get excited about him. Our most valuable endorsement (is usually) the high school coach. I don’t care if the high school coach is a chemistry teacher and doesn’t know if the ball is blown up or stuffed. If he says the kid is on time, he’s enthusiastic, he’s accountable, he’s dependable, he’s caring, he’s self-disciplined, a great teammate, great, let us figure out the rest. But when you have a guy like Joe Garbowski saying he’s all those things and that he can really compete, that, to me, is an A1 endorsement.”
Garbowski was an all-state player at New Fairfield, graduating in 1995. He played at LIU-Brooklyn, and briefly as a professional, and has been coach at his alma mater since 2009. His father, Mike, is a longtime assistant coach and two of his sons are in the lineup. Matt’s brother, Kyle, is a sophomore and the team’s No. 3 starting pitcher.
This has been a fun season in New Fairfield, primarily for the standout battery.
“Their chemistry is excellent,” Joe Garbowski said. “They’re pretty much on the same page all the time. They’re a dynamic duo.”
Matt Garbowski, being a few months older, went through some baseball experiences a year earlier than Braden. Both gained exposure to college coaches in showcases both local and national.
“I remember Braden when we were younger,” said Garbowski, who still spends a lot of time on the lake — fishing, mostly. “He was kind of a little guy. The work he put in to get to where he is is just awesome. I love catching him. He knows his pitches. He knows what to throw. He knows the batters.”
Many pitchers and catchers will come and go from the UConn program over the next handful of years, but there’s a good chance Garbowski and Quinn will do in college what they’ve done in tee-ball and high school — work together.
“UConn was always my dream school,” said Garbowski, 6-0 and 205 pounds. “The coaches were my main point. I was set on Penders, MacDonald, (Jeff) Hourigan. All nice guys. It felt a lot more personal.”
Both players are still getting used to their own success.
“I had a pretty good sophomore year, then in my postseason evaluation Coach Joe was like, ‘You’re going to find out that you’re the guy around here,’” Quinn said. “I was like, ‘What the heck’s he talking about?”
Much of the Connecticut baseball community now knows, and both players are set to be building blocks as Penders, with a new facility and a long track record of recruiting top Connecticut talent, looks to take his program to the next level. The UConn coaching staff has been together longer than any staff in Division I, and Elliot Ballpark is at the heart of the transformation of the university’s southwest portion of campus. Not every elite state player chooses UConn, but many do.
“If we did the best job of keeping the best players in Connecticut we would not just be in contention for winning conference championships or regional championships every year,” Penders said. “We’d be in contention for winning national championships every year. That’s ultimately where this needs to get to, where kids are saying, ‘Why wouldn’t I go there?’”
Why wouldn’t Garbowski and Quinn go there together?