By Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News
BEACON FALLS — Woodland’s Steve Bainer didn’t envision his Hawks in the Class M state quarterfinals when he took the head coaching job before this season.
But that’s exactly where No. 3-seeded Woodland are at the midway point of the state tournament, picking up a pair of wins over Naugatuck Valley League foes to reach the quarterfinals June 5 against No. 11 Bacon Academy at 3 p.m. in Beacon Falls.
“I can’t say I imagined being here, but our kids are really getting better every day,” Bainer said.
Woodland (20-2) had to rebound from a quarterfinal upset loss to Naugatuck in the NVL tournament, and the Hawks faced a unique situation through seeding quirks by having to face a pair of NVL opponents to start the state tournament — and Bainer said his team didn’t take either Seymour or Watertown lightly.
“Our mentality when you go into the state tournament is that 32 teams make the state tournament, and 32 teams are guaranteed to play seven innings, and you have to play seven innings to earn seven more,” Bainer said. “We played good baseball against Seymour and Watertown.”
In the first round June 1, the Hawks blanked No. 30 Seymour, 10-0. Zach Drewry homered twice, while Ryan Montini added a solo shot. Matt Belcher tripled and singled, and Michael Belcher scattered five hits with eight strikeouts in five innings of work.
The following day, Woodland outlasted No. 19 Watertown, 8-5. Drewry’s two-run homer in the fifth broke a 4-4 tie, and Montini’s two-run single in the sixth gave the Hawks insurance. Tyler Lato also drilled a two-run homer to support Cam Heeman, who tossed the first five innings before Tyler Giambra picked up a two-inning save.
When the Hawks went back to practice June 3, Bainer said he was impressed by the team’s work ethic — especially that of Drewry, the team’s hottest hitter.
“Our kids work hard,” Bainer said. “We’re in the cage (and) you’d think Zach Drewry was 0 for his last 30 by the way he’s swinging, trying to fix things. He’s been hitting homers and doubles. He’s one of many guys like that on our team.”
Woodland’s offense may have hit its stride at the right time following a few up-and-down weeks. The Hawks were set to host Bacon Academy June 5 in Beacon Falls.
“Our guys’ approach at the plate has been great,” Bainer said. “They’re seeing the ball well. This is the best time of the year to see the ball well. We have six home runs by five guys in two games. They’re constantly trying to get better and raising the bar on themselves. It’s contagious; when Zach’s swinging well, then Matt Belcher wants to swing well and Ryan Montini starts swinging well.”
A win over Bacon Academy will send the Hawks to their second straight state semifinal. They lost to Wolcott in 2019. Woodland’s only other semifinal appearance was a loss to Waterford in 2007.
The semifinals are set for June 8 at a neutral site against No. 2 Northwestern or No. 7 Rockville. The state championship will be played June 11 or 12 at Palmer Field in Middletown.
“We have to play our best brand of baseball,” Bainer said. “We’ve said to our guys, ‘We’re not playing other teams. We have to play our best brand of baseball, and if we do that, we’re going to be tough to beat.’ You don’t get to be one of the last eight teams playing if you’re not good.”
Naugatuck falls in Class LL first round: The No. 27-seeded Greyhounds put up a fight against No. 6 West Haven but fell in a 7-1 decision June 1.
Jonathan Chatfield’s RBI double to plate Anthony Abate accounted for Naugy’s only run. A few defensive miscues by the ‘Hounds allowed the Blue Devils to pull away late in the game.
Naugatuck finished the season 10-11.