MIDDLETOWN - Most high school athletes are told to cherish the moments on the brightest stage, like a state championship, because you don’t know if you’ll ever make it back.
While that mantra is certainly sound advice, the Southington baseball team walked away from its loss in the Class LL final on Saturday with the sense that its 3-0 defeat at the hands of Staples wasn’t the end, but rather a sign of things to come.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt in the returning players’ minds that we’ll be back next year,” junior Andrew Paradis said. “We’ll be ready to go and looking for revenge.”
Paradis represents one of a number of juniors on the Blue Knights who will look to finish what they started next year. Valuable pitching arms like Ryan Henderson, Jason Krar and Brendan Kavanaugh will be lost to graduation, but Southington brings back a load of offensive talent like Paradis, while also getting Jake Neuman’s arm back for another year, as the junior emerged as the team’s ace as the season went along.
“It’s amazing to think about how many juniors we have on our team and how well we’re going to play next year,” junior Kevin McIntyre said. “I can’t wait for it.”
This year’s run to the state final not only gave the Blue Knights an unforgettable experience, but it also provided head coach Charlie Lembo’s group with a plethora of pressure-packed situations that saw returning players thrive in, particularly through the first four games of the tournament, which Southington claimed by one run each time, including three by way of walk-off.
The core of juniors were all over those thrilling wins for the Blue Knights. Junior Billy Carr recorded walk-off singles in the first and second round of the tournament, and his game-winner in the first round against New Britain was set up by a game-tying double off the bat of Paradis, who later recorded a walk-off double in the state semifinals.
Paradis, consistently slated in the second spot of Lembo’s lineup this year, is one of four juniors that made up the top of the order this year. Jack Meade, Jake DelMonte and Neuman represented Southington’s 1-through-4 hitters in the state tournament, all of which will be back next year, and all of which received valuable postseason experience that ended one game short of the team’s ultimate goal.
“We got a couple young guys in some pressure situations and got some experience there,” Paradis said. “So we’ll all be ready to go next year.”
The Blue Knights might feel disappointment now, but that also gives way to motivation, fueled by the knowledge that the team will have the talent to get back to the final next season, and perhaps be able to finish the job.
“We’re going to put this chip on our shoulder and come back next year and play the hardest we ever have in our lives,” McIntyre said.
That determination showed after Saturday’s game, when the Blue Knights hardly showed the demeanor of a dejected team that obsessed over how close it came to a title. Instead, Southington carried the look of a team that felt it learned what it took to win a championship, and had already begun to imagine the road back next spring.
“This just gave us a taste of what it feels like to play in these type of situations,” McIntyre said. “All of us juniors will be playing together in the summer, so we’re going to keep getting that team chemistry up and play our baseball.”
The Blue Knights will have some talent to replace, as any team does when a season ends, but the players remaining might just be enough to erase Southington’s current streak of four straight losses in the title game. The most recent championship loss might provide the experience needed to break that streak next June.
“We’re going to miss the seniors that will be moving on, but we have a lot of these guys coming back,” Lembo said. “We’ll be back at it again.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org