It’s a lonely, crushing place, that last bus ride of the season for all but four high school baseball teams in Connecticut. Darkness is the only comfort when a special season doesn’t end the way everyone on that bus thought it was destined to finish.
So it was, too, for the Woodland baseball team last Tuesday on its 40-minute trek back from Muzzy Field in Bristol, the sting lingering from a 3-2 loss to top-seeded and longtime rival Wolcott in the Class M baseball semifinals.
“It was the most heartbreaking bus ride I’ve ever been on,” Woodland coach Mike Kingsley said. “There was not a sound made the entire way home.”
It could have been because the Hawks knew they didn’t play their best baseball in the program’s first state semifinal appearance in 12 years. All three Wolcott runs were unearned, wasting a dazzling pitching performance by senior left-hander Justin Butterworth. Woodland’s potent lineup supported him with only two runs, left plenty of men on base and crumbled with a crucial base running mistake in the top of the seventh.
It could have been because Woodland was a win away — perhaps an error or a run away — from reaching the first state championship game in program history. More than that — from becoming the undisputed greatest baseball team in school history.
But most likely, it was because these Hawks won for each other and lost with each other.
“I was telling one of my boys — this was the most all-for-one, one-for-all team that I’ve ever had,” Kingsley said. “They played for each other. It was the closest-knit team I’ve ever had. It’s not being cliché. They really were. They freaking pulled for each other, they played for each other. Even guys who didn’t play were in tears after the game because they’re team players.”
The veteran starting lineup included five seniors and four juniors, and almost any substitute who entered a competitive game was an upperclassman, too. Their strength was forged beginning in 2016, when Kingsley threw three freshmen to the wolves — Zach Bedryczuk, Colby Linnell and Butterworth — and put them on the varsity field. They experienced a 9-12 season.
The next two seasons were better, 14-8 and 16-7. But even last season, with a good senior group and a healthy crop of juniors and sophomores seeing starting time, the team dynamic wasn’t at its peak.
“Last year, this same group of guys was wondering what their average was, if something was a hit or not,” Kingsley said. “If we lost last year, we would have some guys think, ‘I had three hits today, I don’t care that we lost.’”
But this season — much like the standard-bearing year in 2007 — was devoid of egos. For as talented as many of these players are (the three four-year starters will all play college baseball next year, and several juniors are college prospects, too), pitches and at-bats were rarely about them.
Exhibit No. 1: One through nine in the order, every player did what he needed to do, whether it was a two-strike suicide squeeze by Nick DeLucia in the Naugatuck Valley League semifinals or a sacrifice bunt in a regular-season game by Justin Marks after a gopher ball.
“Justin Marks homered in at-bat and I had him sac bunt the next time,” Kingsley said, sounding fascinated that it actually happened.
Exhibit No. 2: Try to figure out what any one pitcher’s record on the mound was this season.
“(One reporter) asked Mike Szturma what his record was on the mound, and he said 20-5,” Kingsley noted, referring to the junior’s terrific effort in the quarterfinal win over Nonnewaug. “Nobody cared about their record. It was all about winning the championship.”
The Hawks may have fallen a run short of appearances in the Naugatuck Valley League and Class M championship games, but they’ve set a new standard at Woodland for how this sport is supposed to be played.
“It was emotional,” Kingsley said of the season ending. “If it’s not emotional, you shouldn’t be doing it. You get pretty attached to guys over four years. But it was a heck of a run, and I’m super proud of them.”