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FORAN BASEBALL Lions still riding high after shocking state title run

April 22, 2018 GMT

MILFORD — Last June, Foran authored one of the most surprising runs in state history, winning the Class L baseball championship after a 7-13 regular season. It was so remarkable, in fact, that the coach who was at the center of it doesn’t blame anyone who questions whether it was for real.

“I’m sure there were some people questioning it. I mean, how could you not?” Lions coach Garrett Walker said. “We were a tale of two stories. We went from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the mountain in a matter of two weeks. Clearly, you’re going to have people question it. Did they just get hot at the right time?”

There’s no doubt that the Lions played their best baseball when it mattered most. After starting the season 1-11 — yes, 1-11 — the Lions rallied to qualify for the 32nd and final seed in Class L on a tiebreaker. Their path to the playoffs was unconventional. And what happened after that, well, that was historic.

The Lions beat five of the state’s most recognizable programs — East Lyme, Berlin, Guilford, Watertown and North Haven — to win their first title in program history. They were the lowest-seeded team to ever accomplish such a feat.

“We didn’t qualify for the 40 percent (threshold). We got in on a tiebreaker with seven wins. There’s a ton of doors open to say what you want about what we did last year,” Walker said. “To us, it was something that we knew we could do. As we got into it a little bit longer, it kind of took on a life of its own.”

As is the case with every championship, there was a honeymoon phase that followed. The Lions were awarded the key to the city, and July 1 will forever be known in Milford as Foran Baseball Day.

One would think that all that attention would have ratcheted up the pressure on these Lions — a team that’s drastically different from the one that beat SCC rival North Haven 8-2 in the Class L title game at Palmer Field in Middletown. If so, Walker hasn’t noticed.

“We tried to stress that this year’s group is uniquely different,” Walker said. “They’re going to set forth their own team dynamic and create their own season. They don’t have to live up to anything last year’s team did.”

Added junior pitcher Richard Piscitelli: “It was fun. It was amazing. It’s a new year, and we want to come back and do it again.”

Only three hitters who played regularly last season are back — right fielder and clean-up hitter Kevin Lanese, catcher Matt Kennedy, shortstop Mark Wootton and Tyler Heenan, described by Walker as Foran’s “Mr. Everything” — and the rotation is ripe on innings. Yet, so far, inexperience hasn’t been a factor for the Lions, winners of six of their first nine games. Two of those losses are against teams that are currently ranked in the GameTimeCT/Register poll: No. 3 Daniel Hand and No. 5 Fairfield Prep.

“We kind of still can fly under the radar,” said Wootton, a senior who started at third base last season. “But we definitely get more attention than last year.”

Under-the-radar status is almost always reserved for the up-and-comers, not defending champions. The difference here is that these Lions are still trying to get spectators to buy in.

“This year, obviously, we’ve gotten off to a good start,” Walker said. “I think people are still somewhat aware of us. It’s more than just, ‘Hey, this is a nice story.’ We are proving that we are going to be a sustained program for a number of years.”

Before last season, the Lions had played in only one state final: the 1977 Class L championship, which they lost to Naugatuck, 3-1. They had won just one state playoff game since 2012, and had not advanced past the first round since 2011.

Despite what some critics say, the 2018 Lions are different.

“I’m not saying we’re sneaking up on people,” Walker said. “But they’re probably still looking at us and testing us, ‘Is Foran for real?’”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour