McFarland guides Staples to Class LL baseball final
Published 4:55 pm, Friday, June 12, 2015
When Staples coach Jack McFarland took the baseball head coaching job in 2005 after a decade with the football team, winning was not a foregone conclusion. Though it had enjoyed success and even a state championship in 2001, consistent winning had escaped the program.
In his 11th season at Staples, McFarland has done nothing but win. 175 times in fact. Three FCIAC titles and another two runners-up finishes. In two other seasons, the Wreckers had the best record in the regular season. And there’s the eight straight FCIAC playoff appearances — another school record.
Before that as a player, McFarland was a part of the 1981 Warde team that won the Class LL title and also made the state final the following season.
There’s one final piece to the accomplishment puzzle for McFarland, though. On Saturday at Palmer Field in Middletown, the Wreckers and Amity will tangle for the Class LL championship at 12 p.m.
“It would mean everything to the kids and the town,” McFarland said. “I’ve won my state championship as a player, this one would be for them.”
The last hurdle will likely be the tallest one. A somewhat famous person said ‘to be the man you got to beat the man.’ That applies in a theoretical sense for Staples, which will have to dethrone the two-time defending Class LL champions Amity to deliver McFarland an elusive title.
The Wreckers started out 3-3 in the FCIAC as the lineup struggled to put up runs in the frigid cold. That feels like a lifetime ago now. Staples has been a runaway train with just one derailment over the past month. Seventeen wins from 19 and a 22-5 record has the group one win away from the school’s first Class LL title.
“The thing they’re doing that I couldn’t get any other group to do is really put the distractions off to the side,” McFarland said. “In Westport at this time of year … there are million distractions; this team is locked in and razor focused. We’re playing a high level.”
After the FCIAC final loss to Wilton, McFarland calmly told his team they were capable to do some damage in the state tournament, and to move on to the next challenge. The Wreckers heeded the call, and have demolished the Class LL field. Their last performance was the most impressive yet, an 11-0 win over Norwalk in the semifinals Wednesday.
“He told us he’s had teams that have dwelled on the FCIAC loss and they’ve gone into states and not played too well, said senior Marco Latella, who started the 1-0 defeat to the Warriors. “We’ve been playing with that mentality that we’re going to keep our heads up, look forward and get some redemption.”
McFarland remains one of the driving forces behind the program. The school renovated the field and added a batting cage six years ago, and this spring helped introduce the Blue Monster, a large blue fence in left field that has provided an indirect homefield advantage.
“We’ve hit nine or 10 home runs at home, and haven’t given up any,” said McFarland. “We’re also 4-0 in the playoffs at home.”
The Wreckers also began scrimmaging Saturday’s opponent Amity before each season, hoping one day they would be able to one day be seen as an equal to the SCC power that has won four Class LL titles in nine seasons.
“We made a decision about six or seven years ago to scrimmage Amity every year, because we feel they have the best program in the state,” McFarland said. “It’s not going to be a scrimmage Saturday. We’re there; we’re going to look them in the eye and give them our best shot.”
Usually a stoic presence along the third base line, McFarland claps his hands in encouragement the same way if one of his batters swung at a ball in the dirt or crushed one over the fence. Of course there are times when a different tone is needed.
Wreckers senior Zach Azadian recalled a play earlier in the season when he believed to be out on a bunt attempt that hit him outside of the batter’s box. McFarland made his case and the umpires reversed the call.
“McFarland came and yelled them out, as he does,” Azadian said. “They actually reversed the call; probably more because they were too scared to say no to him. The very next pitch I hit (a double); he always has our backs.”
“I’ll protect the kids until the end if I think something isn’t going right on the field,” McFarland said. “The kids know I have their back no matter what.”
The feeling is mutual for the players, who have each learned something through McFarland’s guidance.
“He kept believing in me, which I appreciated,” said Azadian, who moved into the middle of the order during the season. “Without him I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now; I’m thankful for that because I wouldn’t be having the season I’ve had.”
As the Wreckers found out against Wilton, it only takes one loss to leave the season without a trophy. Amity is 20-7 and has won seven straight games — including the SCC title.
“Everyone in that dugout knows we’re too good not to bring (a title) home,” Azadian said. “To be able to bring it home and put a banner up; as a senior it would be surreal. It’s what we’ve been talking about since January.”
After the last out is recorded at Palmer Field, win or lose the Wreckers will remain one of the top teams in the state — a perch they’ve arrived at with McFarland at the helm.