BRISTOL - This weekend, eight baseball teams in Connecticut will be competing at Palmer Field to win their final game of the season and hang a state championship banner, a list that includes area teams Berlin and Southington.
The Redcoats, the No. 1-seeded team in Class L, faced off with 15th-seeded Waterford on Friday night. Southington, No. 3 in Class LL, plays Saturday at noon.
Several members of the Bristol Blues know what it’s like to be thrust into that high-pressurized situation, and five of them know the feeling of being on the right side of the final out at Palmer and being crowned a state champ.
Dylan Reynolds (Notre Dame-West Haven; 2014 and 2016 Class L), Ben DeLaubell (Cheshire; 2018 Class LL) and Austin White (Portland; 2014 Class S) won Connecticut state championships, as did Nolan Cloutier and James Judenis, who were teammates on Sheehan’s 2015 title team.
As both Berlin and Southington looked to win their season’s final game, Cloutier’s advice to them was to stay confident and even-keeled throughout the seven-inning process.
“Seeing as you’re in the state final game, your team and yourself worked so hard to get there and you’ve just gotta stick together and put it together,” Cloutier said. “There’s gonna be times where you fall behind, and you can’t let that go to your head. And if you get ahead, you can’t let that go to your head. You’ve gotta play all seven innings.”
Cloutier still has fond memories of going out on top four years ago. When he was a kid, the current Blues outfielder and his friends were starving to make it to the Little League World Series.
When they fell short of that goal, it brought some pain and regret, and that’s when they made another goal with each other. They were going to win a state championship in high school.
During Cloutier’s freshman year at Sheehan, the Titans were the last team in the Class M field as the No. 36 seed and pulled off a pair of upsets before losing in the quarterfinals. His sophomore season was more painful, as Sheehan lost in the first round.
The early exit, Cloutier says, served as a wakeup call for him and his teammates, and that helped lead to the most special moments of his high school career the following season.
Sheehan won 16 games in the regular season, earned a No. 4 seed in the postseason and behind starting pitcher Zach Hart - recently selected by the Indians in the 10th round of the MLB Draft - blitzed their way to the Class M title.
“It was a big deal for me and all my teammates because we had all gone out and played Little League ball together against each other,” Cloutier said. “Just to win it was really a dream come true for me in high school.”
The state title run began with a win over Cloutier’s Blues and SCSU teammate Tommy Hughes and Goodwin Tech in the first round. Then came a win over Ledyard in the quarterfinals to avenge the previous season’s first-round ouster to the Colonels.
After that, Sheehan beat the state’s No. 1-ranked team, East Catholic, in the semifinals at Dodd Stadium in Norwich, home of the Detroit Tigers’ Short-Season A minor league affiliate the Connecticut Tigers.
“That was actually a pretty surreal experience,” Cloutier said. “We got a lot of people there. It was nice to be in a major league style clubhouse for the first time in my life.
“We knew at that point that was the biggest game of the year right there. It was a bit of a rivalry between us even though we hadn’t played them in the regular season. We knew we were gonna have to play them eventually, and we were gonna have to beat them if we wanted to be state champions.”
Those are all memories that will stick with Cloutier for the rest of his life, and it was similar gleeful reaction from Reynolds, whose mind flooded back to Palmer in an instant when broached about his two state titles.
“Those experiences were just surreal,” Reynolds said. “There was no better feeling than going out on top and knowing you were the best team in your class in the state of Connecticut. That dog pile at the end of the game is just the best feeling you can possibly have.
“You work so hard all year in the fall, winter and spring. To finally come out on top and see that hard work pay off, there’s really no better feeling.”
The last two outs of both state title games stand out in Reynolds’ mind more than any other moments.
“The run from the outfield seems like it takes 20 minutes, but it really lasts 15 seconds,” Reynold said. “And that final dog pile, you’re leaping on top. It feels like forever at the moment, but it’s so quick. You try to take advantage of every moment. The dog piles are definitely the most memorable parts. You never, ever forget it.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org