Doug Delivers: Late is better than never for Staples baseball
Spend some time around any established sports program and you're bound to see some trends that unite them. All take great pride in extending streaks of longevity and building the traditions that set their program apart from others.
With winning the ultimate goal for any team, some have been more fortunate than others.
Staples High's baseball program came into this season with five straight FCIAC playoff appearances -- three of those trips resulting in titles -- yet saw that streak in danger midway though the year.
A 7-0 loss to New Canaan on April 24 dropped the Wreckers to 5-5, including just 3-5 in conference, with 10 games left. Bothered by his team's inconsistent play, coach Jack McFarland called a team meeting and stressed a sense of urgency.
His message went something went something like this: "If you want to make it for a sixth-consecutive season, we have to win at least seven out of the last 10 league games," McFarland recalls. "In the seven games, you're going to need a signature win against a top team ... and there's going to be a showdown game where you're going to need that."
The Wreckers went 7-3 in their last 10 regular-season games -- and notched wins against first-place Greenwich and another playoff hopeful, Wilton, in the process -- to clinch the final spot in the eight-team playoff field.
"We made it tough on ourselves, but the kids bonded together," McFarland said.
After falling to the Cardinals in the FCIAC first round, Staples responded with a pair of road wins over SCC clubs -- No. 16 West Haven and No. 1 Xavier -- in the LL state tournament. The Wreckers ended the year with a 2-1 loss at Trumbull in the state quarterfinals.
"We played our best baseball in the last 14 games," McFarland said.
That was no small feat for the Wreckers, who faced the meat of their schedule late with four games against conference playoff teams.
"When we had that meeting, we were looking at the hardest part of the schedule, the second part," McFarland said. "We just went through the easy part and we were 3-5. ... We made it tough on ourselves."
To get through the daunting stretch, the Wreckers relied on strong pitching -- they allowed just 21 runs in their final 10 regular-season games -- and timely hitting. Left-hander Chris Speer (3-2, 2.61 ERA) and right-hander Alec Johnson (3-3, .70, 3 saves) led the team in wins, while Ryder Chasin and Robert Vallone each had a sub-2.00 ERA.
"We said, `Listen, you're not going to get the ball if you're going to walk people.' Different people got the ball and they started throwing strikes," McFarland said. "When the other guys came back, they knew they had to throw strikes."
With part of the lineup returning next season, McFarland doesn't expect to need to deliver the same message again.
"They'll be working on it all summer and they'll be ready to go," he said. "If they're not, there's other guys behind them."
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