By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News
Hustle, intangibles mark winningest season in program history
BRISTOL — The last loss of Woodland’s baseball season was just like the other two — except this one was in the Class M state semifinals.
The No. 3-seeded Hawks squandered a couple of key opportunities and couldn’t manage to come up with clutch hits in a 3-2 defeat against No. 2 Northwestern on June 9 at Muzzy Field in Bristol.
“All year, we were the team that came up with the timely hit,” Woodland coach Steve Bainer said. “If you look at our season, we lost three games. In those three games — St. Paul, Naugatuck, and this game — we struggled to get the timely hit. The game we played [in the semifinal] and the game we played against Naugatuck in the NVL tournament were so similar. We had the bases loaded with no outs [in the second inning] and only got one run, and we had second and third with one out in the fifth and only got one.”
Cam Heeman pitched well in his final high school start, scattering nine hits with four strikeouts in a complete-game effort.
One of the game’s key plays came in the top of the fifth. Northwestern led 3-1, but the Hawks had runners on second and third with one out. Zach Drewry’s single plated Jayden Tomasella from third, but the Highlanders caught Matt Belcher in a rundown at the plate to cut down the tying run.
Even though that proved to be one of the game’s differences, Bainer said Belcher’s hustle on the play embodied the spirit that propelled the Hawks to their winningest season in school history.
“On the play to the plate in the rundown, he dove into the plate, and our trainer (Ryan Kirby) told us he (probably) broke his thumb,” Bainer said. “He stayed in the rest of the game. Thankfully he didn’t break it, but he didn’t want to come out. He’s a catcher and stayed in the game. When you have guys like that, you know you’re going to be in the fight.”
Bainer noted that Belcher wasn’t the only senior to play through pain this season.
“The things Cam had to do to get his body ready to pitch — he swam a couple of days in a row to relieve inflammation. There were days when he couldn’t pick up a baseball,” Bainer said of Heeman, who came back from Tommy John surgery. “Belcher, besides the thumb, played with a quad injury. Jayden played with a hamstring injury. If nothing else, they built the culture that our team is going to be built upon.”
Woodland finished 21-3, setting a school record for wins and reaching the state semifinals for the third time in program history. It was a season that nobody saw coming before it started.
“I knew we had some intangibles,” said Bainer, who took the job after longtime coach Mike Kingsley resigned. “We didn’t scrimmage anyone, and we opened with Wolcott and St. Paul. We ran the table that week without having practiced against another team. When I look back at that week, that’s when I knew we would be special team.”
Bainer praised the impact of the team’s seniors — Belcher, Heeman, Tomasella, Matt Koliani, Matthew Deptula, Gerald Gory and Jack Bronn — in helping to establish the culture in his first season as coach.
“No, we didn’t win a championship in the league or the state, but I don’t think any team can sit here and say they wanted to play the Woodland Hawks,” Bainer said. “Our seniors bought into our mindset.”
The cupboard won’t be bare next season. All-State pitcher Michael Belcher, center fielder Ryan Montini and hot-hitting Drewry lead the returners.
“We’re in a spot where hopefully our guys will get better this summer and this won’t be the last of us playing into the second week of the state tournament,” Bainer said. “I’m very optimistic about the players coming up. Part of that Woodland Way mindset is that those guys know that they will have to come in and earn it.”