Tuesday, June 14, 2016

St. Paul seniors realize their potential, get their state championship

St. Paul senior pitcher Connor Crean saw state championship potential in his class early on.
"When we all showed up freshman year for tryouts, we knew, one year, we were going to get it," Crean said following Sunday's Class S state final against Morgan at Palmer Field in Middletown.
Crean had just pitched the Falcons to a 4-2 victory over the Huskies to win the program's first state championship since 1972. Players in this class have seen success at other levels, such as the Bristol junior and senior league squads that played under the name Edgewood. Putting it together at the high school level is different.
In 2013, St. Paul earned the No. 4 seed in Class S, along with a first round bye. The Falcons went down 1-0 to No. 13 East Hampton in the first round. 
St. Paul entered Class S as the No. 19 seed in 2014 and knocked off No. 14 Northwest Catholic before falling to eventual state champion Thomaston in the second round.
In 2015, St. Paul came into Class S as the No. 5 seed. The Falcons got past No. 28 East Hampton in the first round and No. 12 Holy Cross in the second round, only to see their run end against state runner-up Morgan in the quarterfinals.
There was one season left for St. Paul seniors Crean, Mike Dombrowski, Wayne Sharp, Jarod Deegan, Ben Mazzone, Jackson Hines, Joe Ricciuti and Chadd Richardson. 
The Falcons were being led by a new head coach, Vic Rinaldi, who had previously coached at Lewis Mills. Pat Holden moved on to Central Connecticut State University after leading the Falcons during the first three years of the Class of 2016.
It was a time of change, but the senior class was ready to play.
"We were all together and we were ready to go," Crean said. 
St. Paul got off to a 11-1 start, but lost half of its final eight games to finish 15-5. The Falcons exited the NVL Tournament after their first game, a 4-3 home loss to Wolcott.
St. Paul earned the No. 4 seed in Class S and opened with a 15-6 pounding of No. 29 Coginchaug. Crean shut down No. 13 Notre Dame-Fairfield in a 4-0 win in the second round. 
Next up was the quarterfinal, a round St. Paul hadn't been out of since 1999. Junior Wes Lahey gutted his way through a complete game in a 6-5 win over No. 12 Portland.
In the semifinals, the Falcons faced upstart No. 24 Old Lyme, who had just upset No. 1 Oxford in the previous round. Crean was given the ball, but had trouble with his control. Happily for St. Paul, the Falcons erupted for five runs, and it was all the team needed to claim a 5-2 victory. Hines came on in relief of Crean and closed out Old Lyme, which put St. Paul in the state final for the first time since 1976.
St. Paul's senior class had reached the final. One hurdle remained, and it was the Morgan program that had taken down the Falcons in the quarterfinal round the year before.
Crean struggled with his control again in the final, but St. Paul found itself in a 2-2 tie in the top of the seventh inning. 
It was no surprise that the championship-winning rally started with seniors.
The senior co-captain Hines singled to left to begin the inning. Mazzone was called on to bunt, but his sacrifice got past the mound and turned into a base hit. A swinging bunt from junior Andrew Owsianko moved Hines and Mazzone to second and third. Morgan intentionally walked Richardson, which brought up the senior co-captain Dombrowski.
"I've been in this situation before," Dombrowski said. "I knew I just had to be patient, get that pitch. I knew I had a job to do. I needed something I could drive to the outfield because we needed a sac fly."
Dombrowski was up with the bases loaded in the third inning of the semifinal following another intentional walk to Richardson. Dombrowski drew a walk on a 3-2 pitch, which brought home the first run in what was a five-run outburst.
In the final, Dombrowski did his job, got the ball to the outfield, and Hines scored on the sac fly. Mazzone came around to score on an error on the same play, and St. Paul had a 4-2 lead.
The Falcons had gone through tough losses, but this game would not be one of them. After a leadoff walk, Crean -- who saw the potential for greatness in his class when they entered the school on Maltby Street as freshmen -- struck out the side and St. Paul celebrated.
"Nothing better," Crean said when asked how it felt to end his high school career with a state championship.
Rinaldi was only around the senior class for a year, but he became close to them.
"They're a great bunch of seniors," Rinaldi said. "I'll never forget them, and they'll never forget today."
St. Paul's Class of 2016 baseball players fulfilled their potential, and they brought the program its first state championship in 44 years. That's quite the legacy to leave behind.

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