Championship journey


Naugatuck Post 17 stepped up when facing elimination

By Ken Morse, Citizen’s News

This is the first story of a series commemorating anniversaries of significant moments in local sports history. Our first story looks at the 19-year anniversary of Naugatuck American Legion Post 17’s run to the 2001 state baseball title.

Naugatuck Post 17 players, from left, Jamie Verab, Henry Lee and Mark Merriam celebrate after winning the American Legion state championship in 2001. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — In the summer of 2001, the Naugatuck American Legion Post 17 baseball team set out on a journey that would take it to the Northeast Regionals as the Connecticut state champions.

Post 17 is one of just three teams among the state’s 109 Legion programs that have won six or more state championships. In the 90-year history of Connecticut American Legion baseball, Bristol has 13 state titles, Bridgeport has nine, and Naugatuck has won it all six times — 1946, 1948, a three-year run from 1969 to 1971, and the last title in 2001.

Championship seasons are celebrated. Even though that is the destination of every team that has ever taken the field, it is a rare occasion when heart meets desire and a team earns a championship.

Success begins with solid leadership, and then-head coach Kevin Cyr, assistant coaches Tom Keating and Mike Abromaitis, and statistician Robert Stauffer had the experience and the tenacity to guide the 2001 team through the rough spots.

“There really is not a whole lot of difference between one team or another from year to year because every year the goal is to win a championship,” Cyr said. “The coaches, we were all Naugatuck guys and played on the Legion teams. We all worked well together and it was a total team effort from start to finish.”

Naugy was no stranger to tournament success, even though it had been 30 years since a title came back to the borough.

“We were there a few years before in 1998 and got beat by Trumbull in the championship game,” Cyr said. “We got beat by a guy named Craig Breslow, who went on to a Major League career (as a relief pitcher). But it was Ray Legenza who taught us to be winners back when we were in high school and it carried over into summer ball.”

There were not a whole lot of rough spots in the summer of 2001 as Naugatuck claimed its fifth straight Zone 5 title with a 24-3 record. Post 17 had a few blue-chippers to lead the way, including the 2001 Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year in Jeff Hourigan, a Beacon Falls resident who played at Masuk High, along with Henry Lee, a power hitter from Naugatuck.

Hourigan went into the tournament red hot after finishing the regular season with a .536 average and 50 RBI. He went on to lead Naugatuck to a 6-1 record in the tournament and was the tournament MVP, going 15 of 27 at the plate for a .556 clip and going 3-0 on the mound.

“Hourigan and Lee were two big names in our lineup, but once the tournament started everyone stepped up,” Cyr said. “It was someone different every night and that was a total team effort.”

Naugy dismantled East Hartford, 16-2, in the tournament opener. Hourigan hit two home runs, including a grand slam, with seven RBI and Lee added a double, two triples and four RBI.

Naugatuck’s Jeff Hourigan delivers a pitch against Milford in the final of the American Legion state tournament in 2001 at Fuessenich Park in Torrington. Naugatuck won, 11-0, to win its first title since 1971. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVE

Later, Post 17 lost a heartbreaker to Norwalk, 9-7, in 12 innings. Naugy had its back to the wall and that’s when the team stepped up. Ron Turmel belted a key home run to send Post 17 to a 10-8 win over New London.

Mark Merriam belted a RBI triple and Jamie Verab added two hits and two RBI with Lee pitching a complete game in an 8-4 win over Orange. That sent Naugy to the semifinals, where again a slew of players stepped up.

Ricky Delarosa and Paul Novakowski belted key two-run doubles and Chris Casella added a two-run homer in a 12-6 win in a rematch with Norwalk. The difference was 16-year-old Gary Novakowski, who went five shutout innings and belted two home runs.

Naugatuck went on to win the state championship with an 11-0 victory over Milford. Hourigan threw seven innings of one-hit ball behind several sensational plays in the field by Gary Miller. Sean Keegan slammed the door with two innings of shutout relief. Delarosa scored three runs and Lee added three RBI to spark the offense.

Post 17 went onto the Northeast Regional and ended up losing a semifinal game to Milford (Mass.). Naugy fell one game short of playing for a chance to reach the American Legion World Series, but that one glorious summer will go down as a season to celebrate.