BRISTOL - In past years, some teams have easily gotten through the Zone 1 schedule of the American Legion summer baseball circuit and cruised into the playoffs.
The 2019 season won’t be so easy. It’s going to be more cutthroat.
That’s Bristol head coach Jerry LaPenta’s belief, at least, and that thought was validated after his team lost a 4-3 game to Berlin on Monday night at Muzzy Field.
Bristol, Berlin, Southington, Simsbury and West Hartford - five of the nine teams that make up the Northern and Southern Divisions of Zone 1 - are all going to make things difficult for one another and will all be picking each other off on a nightly basis.
“Nobody’s going to be running away with the zone like they have in the past,” LaPenta said. “It makes it much more competitive with [Berlin] in the zone. … You just don’t really have a day to catch your breath. It should be interesting to see how it shakes out. It will be a war of attrition and survival.”
Berlin head coach Gary Van Etten led his club to a zone championship last year, but agreed with LaPenta’s assessment. Being in the more competitive Zone 1 this summer will make things more interesting but also more taxing on his guys.
Many of Van Etten’s players, however, were key members of Berlin High School’s Class L state runners-up and should be ready, he said, for the challenge of facing teams like Southington - a team that rosters many players who lost a one-run Class LL state championship game.
“I think the zone is wide open. There are a bunch of teams we’re going to match up well against,” Van Etten said. “I think we’re going to be in the mix for a zone championship. We have our work cut out for us, but these guys fight. They always seem to pull something out.”
Van Etten listed Southington, Simsbury and West Hartford as three of the top contenders for the Zone 1 title, but he circled back to the team he labeled “a perennial powerhouse” as one he has some of his most admiration for.
“My kids play really hard, and Bristol does too,” Van Etten said. “I think Bristol is a very good team. They’re a force to be reckoned with for the rest of the year in the zone and in the state tournament. They’ll make the state tournament. They may win the zone. I hope not, but they may very well win the zone.”
Dating back to a 12-inning Bristol victory over Berlin in the playoffs two years ago, both LaPenta and Van Etten have mutual respect for each other’s Legion program. That’s what should make the three-game series between the two clubs one of the most intriguing matchups of the summer, and it provides a taste of how daunting the Zone 1 gauntlet will be.
The series between Bristol (3-2 in the Northern Division) and Berlin (2-1 in the Southern Division) continues Thursday (5:45 p.m. at Sage Park’s Zipadelli Field) and wraps up June 28 as they jostle for position atop the league standings.
“We play everybody three times so I tell the kids our goal is to win the series,” LaPenta said. “If we win two out of three, I consider that a victory. It’s gonna be hard to take two out of three from them.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org