NEW CANAAN — Until 10 months ago, the easiest way to rouse a response from a New Canaan High School baseball player was to mention the team’s place in the town’s sports pecking order.
“I think being a baseball player in New Canaan is a very hard occupation to have,” said JR Anderson, one of the Rams’ pitchers. “You don’t get a lot of respect. It’s tough growing up being overshadowed by lacrosse.”
That had started to change prior to June 9 of last year, when New Canaan shut out Waterford, 3-0, to win the school’s first state championship in the sport since 1950.
It both validated the growth of baseball in the town, and was further evidence that there is enough room to share the spotlight with lacrosse in the spring, not to mention the many other sports for which New Canaan is noted.
“To finally get that title under our belt and establish ourselves, it not only feels good for the team but it feels good for the town and the baseball program from top to bottom,” Anderson said.
While it is too early to make any definitive statements about the long-term sustainability, all the indicators are that last year’s title was not an aberration, but rather vindication of the direction of the program.
It was the second year in a row New Canaan reached the state final. Mitch Hoffman, about to start his fifth season as coach, said 81 players tried out for the team this spring — the next-highest total during his tenure was in the mid-60s. The youth program is flourishing, and there is an initiative to improve the community’s playing fields.
“I consider baseball in this town being from ages 5 to 18,” said Hoffman, who recently moved to New Canaan. “High school is just one component. I consider it the top of the pyramid.”
At the team’s practice on Tuesday it was readily apparent that last year’s championship has neither swelled heads nor diminished drive.
“We’re just as hungry as we are every year,” said Dan Rajkowski, the team’s first baseman and closer, who will play next year at UConn. “We want to win states. We want to win FCIACs. Last year was a great feeling. We want to have that feeling again.”
Though the Rams lost three starters — including Andrew Casali, who threw a one-hit shutout in the win over Waterford, and catcher Casey Ouellette — and one part-time starter, this year’s team is blessed with both quality and depth. Anderson, Rajkowski, Alex LaPolice, Matt Toth and Jeff Chen should provide one of the state’s best pitching staffs — a must for postseason success.
“I firmly believe if we pick it up, throw it, throw it for strikes and do the little things, then we should win more than we lose,” Hoffman said. “The tough thing in the FCIAC and state is it’s one game. The ball has to bounce your way.”
Now that they have had a taste of success, the New Canaan players agreed a continued strong work ethic will ensure that they master the aspects of the game they can control.
“We don’t really have to change anything,” Toth said. “We always say play hard and play aggressive. We aren’t going to see anything harder than what we face in batting practice. We are a group with a good approach, trying to hit the ball hard. We have a solid defense and our pitching is always great, so it just has to come together.”
The expectations will now be even higher, and the New Canaan players agreed that will be an inspiration, not a burden.
“Now that we have the state title on our resume people will not just see us as another game on the schedule, which it has been in the past.” Anderson said. “It’s nice to have the target on your back because that makes you work harder.”
Playoff baseball is different than in other sports. One opposing hot pitcher can derail your hopes. There is a reason lower seeds have won FCIAC titles over the last decade as often as higher seeds.
“The ultimate goal is that this doesn’t happen again in another 63 years,” Hoffman said. “This was a baseball town. We have four kids playing college ball next year and probably four more the year after that. Last year was great but I play possum with it. It’s just one step. We should do that every year. That’s the way I look at it.”
In a town where sticks have proved a more treasured commodity than bats, the New Canaan baseball and softball teams enter next week with, respectively, state and FCIAC titles to defend.
“I think winning is extra motivation for us seniors, but also for the younger guys,” Toth said. “We were under the radar. We’re kind of on the radar now.”