This summer brought upon a season of many firsts for all sports leagues in Connecticut due to the coronavirus outbreak that drastically changed the sports landscape at every level.
For summer sports, it was the first season with significantly later start dates and the first where players were instructed to stay six feet apart, wear masks to the field and skip handshakes after the game.
It was also the year of a different first for the New Britain Little League 50/70 intermediate team, which took the field on Saturday afternoon and closed out its unique season with the team’s first-ever championship, beating Forestville 13-9 to win the series.
The last time any New Britain Little League team won a championship was when the junior team won back in 2011. But the 50/70 intermediate league gives kids a first taste of a bigger field before making the jump to fields with professional dimensions.
“It helps them to develop and show them the ropes,” league president and team head coach Antonio Velazquez said. “You have kids that are 12 and 13 and aging out and they usually can get intimidated by playing on the larger fields, so this allows them to keep playing and get a feel for it. The dimensions on the field are smaller, but the rules are the same once you get to this division.”
The fields are slightly bigger than at the junior level, but Jordan Barbosa, one of New Britain’s youngest players at 11 years old, seemed to have no problem when the lights shined the brightest, going 4-for-4 in the championship-clinching game, including the hit that put New Britain ahead for good.
“He struggled the whole season and came up big,” Velazquez said. “He put us ahead when we were down. He was big for us on Saturday.”
Alex Heidel and Mi’Anjel Velazquez also hit home runs in the championship series to help New Britain on its way to making city history.
New Britain and Forestville were deadlocked at eight apiece for most of the game before Forestville pulled ahead 10-8 in the sixth inning. But New Britain’s bats erupted again in the bottom of the sixth behind Barbosa, pushing across five runs and hanging on for the win and the title.
New Britain’s intermediate team, on top of adjusting to a slightly larger field, also had to adjust to many new norms due to covid-19, which increased the challenges of the season, but led to a greater reward when they were still standing after a hard-fought championship series.
“It was emotional due to what the year has brought upon,” Velazquez said. “There weren't going to be sports or baseball, and everything got pushed back. When we decided to come back and play this little league season, we explained to the kids why things happen the way that they do. We had to practice social distancing, something that your average 11- or 13-year-old isn't used to. They see their friends and want to continue doing with them what they were doing at age five. It was difficult keeping them apart and letting them know the severity of things, and let's just play baseball and focus on that.”
As the season went along, Velazquez noticed his players settling into the unique landscape of the season, and it turned into a special year in the Hardware City.
“Slowly but surely throughout the season, the kids starting developing and making progress, and morale starting to come up too,” Velazquez said. “You could see that they were starting to grasp how the world has changed.”
The game had changed too, with umpires being positioned behind the pitcher’s mound rather than home plate, and kids brought lawn chairs to spread out outside the dugout to remain distanced. The stands were pushed back as well, and kids were asked to refrain from going back and forth from their parents in the bleachers to the dugout. The season as a whole was a difficult one to bring together for Velazquez, but after it ended with a championship, it was well worth it.
“It was a challenge for me as president first, and as a parent, I have five boys at home and they all play sports,” Velazquez said. “I had to be dad first and president as well. My first concern was how to keep the kids safe. The kids aren't really concerned about that, but as a parent we had to think about ourselves and the other parents and assure them that their kids would be safe, and we would do everything necessary to keep it that way.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or email@example.com