When we think of great championship games, the lingering memories are of the conquerors, those who raised their game and were rewarded with a trophy for their services.
In a condensed playoff week in several sports because of an aberrant year in which they followed rather than preceded Memorial Day weekend, the names JT Morin and Mariah Matheis were etched in FCIAC lore, as were their teams.
Morin pitched a game for the ages in the baseball final Friday night, allowing just two hits and striking out 12 in an eight-inning complete-game effort that resulted in Wilton winning its first league title in 20 years, 1-0 over Staples.
Just over 24 hours earlier, Matheis put the exclamation point on a tremendous comeback as the Darien girls lacrosse team overcame a four-goal second-half deficit to win its fourth straight conference championship with a 13-12 win over New Canaan in triple overtime.
One of the lasting pictures from the week was the last: Staples pitcher Marco Latella sitting on a tarp, waiting to be interviewed while reporters met with his coach, Jack McFarland. With deadlines to meet, Latella’s thoughts were heard by just a few; some of us apologized to the pitcher for the logistics that sometimes put reporters into the situation of playing an unwanted game of beat the clock.
The plight of Latella, as well as the Staples and New Canaan teams, came to mind in a mental flashback of the week. So with the weather pushing back the start of a number of state tournaments, it seemed like an opportune time to give the runners-up — a much more fitting term than losers — their due.
For — getting back to the original point — to have a great championship you need a pair of worthy contenders.
Staples coach Jack McFarland made what otherwise might have been considered a controversial decision if Latella hadn’t made him look prophetic. Latella had just two prior relief appearances on the mound, both in the first week of the season. He contracted mononucleosis, missed 10 days and then spent his time as a middle infielder as the Wreckers finished the regular season with the league’s second-best record behind a staff comprised mainly of sophomores.
If not for Morin, the talk all weekend would have been about Latella, who actually had one other stint before being the surprise starter for the championship with Wilton. That was just hours earlier, when McFarland brought him in to get the final out against Trinity Catholic. McFarland was hoping to give Latella a few pitches to get used to the mound. He needed just one.
That was foreshadowing to what would follow as McFarland opted to have the Wreckers’ fate rest on a veteran who had not pitched in six weeks, rather than a sophomore with more innings of work.
“In my mind I have to look the senior in the eye when it’s all said and done,” said McFarland in explaining his choice. “It was a tough decision.”
Latella allowed just five hits through seven innings before giving up a bloop single with two outs and then Jackson Ward’s single to left for the game’s lone run.
“Marco was epic,” McFarland said. “If you told me he’d throw seven innings I would have said the trophy would be here in Westport.”
The Rams’ defeat, because of the subplots, was more disheartening. First, it came against their biggest rival. Second, it occurred after they appeared to have control with an 8-4 lead early in the second half. Finally, the last time New Canaan won the league title was in 1993, the first year the game was held.
With a couple of days to get over it, New Canaan coach Kristin Woods said on Monday, “It definitely was eye-opening. A lot of things happened in the game that could have been different. We will learn from our mistakes. Not only me but the kids as well.
Woods blamed herself for being “too aggressive” rather than consuming more clock with the lead.
“I got caught up in the game,” Woods said. “We got into a running game with them at the end and that’s what I didn’t want to do.”
Woods said her team’s turnovers and poor shooting percentage at the end of the game was a contrast from the sparking performance that had helped the Rams build their lead.
Some mistakes aside, New Canaan essentially did what other great teams do in defeat: forced an opponent to bring out its very best to forge victory.
Woods said her team raised the bar with its play, something she will use in pursuit of a state championship.
“Now I know the capability of the kids and will hold them to that standard,” Woods said. “I just am sorry for them that they didn’t get the win.”
Years ago, when my friend was trying to keep the peace with his young daughters during games of chance or competition, he came up with the concept of the “second winner” as a shield against tears.
At the high school level, that is of course way too saccharine.
But as we think back to the greatness that brought Wilton and Darien championships, best to remember Staples and New Canaan rightfully, not as losers but runners-up.