After going 14-6 during the regular season and winning a state tournament game last year, the Newington baseball team had its sights set on a successful 2020 season with the goal of a deep tournament run in mind.
With a strong returning class that included All-State catcher Gunnar Johnson, expectations and anticipation were high in Newington. Then came the announcement of the CIAC cancelling state championship competition throughout spring sports due to the coronavirus pandemic, and those expectations turned into hope that any kind of season could be salvaged, giving the group the chance to play together one last time.
Those hopes were dashed as well when the CIAC announced the cancelation of the entire season last week after Connecticut schools were ordered to shut down for the rest of the academic year. It meant the Indians’ soon-to-be graduates had played their last game, which wound up being a 4-0 loss to No. 8 Enfield in the second round of the Class LL state tournament.
“I feel very badly for all our players but especially the seniors,” head coach Ben Alaimo said. “For some of these student-athletes, this year was a chance to grow a lasting legacy in the program. But for others, this was their first chance to be full-time varsity players. Some of these boys have put in the time and work for three years waiting for their turn, it finally comes and unfortunately, they don’t get that chance. I feel especially sorry for those players.”
Among the six Newington seniors was Johnson, a three-year starter who raked to the tune of a .540 batting average last season, a school record, after batting .440 as a sophomore. With the loss of the senior season, Johnson’s quest to break the school’s RBI record (which he was on pace to surpass) reached an unexpected end, as did his journey toward 100 career hits.
“In my opinion, he had a chance to be in the running for Gatorade Player of the Year this season,” Alaimo said of Johnson, who is moving on to play Division I at Wofford College next season.
For other seniors, the 2020 season would have been a chance to get back on the diamond after disappointing junior campaigns. Pitcher Anthony Parafati was injured last year, and was poised to make his return this spring before schools and athletics were shut down.
“[Parafati] stayed with the team to do whatever he could to help,” Alaimo said of Parafati’s junior season, when he wasn’t able to take the mound. “He’s a terrific young man who was going to make his mark this season.”
Ryan Saindon was also hoping to have a big season for the Indians after the outfielder batted .300 as a junior and was a fixture atop Newington’s lineup thanks to a productive on-base percentage of .441, which helped him wreak consistent havoc on the basepaths.
“He’s a speedy and smooth runner,” Alaimo said. “Ryan was going to have a really good season.”
Jon Pyne was also hoping to have a good season after being named to the all-conference team last year. A two-way talent, Pyne batted .309 as a junior and ripped four doubles, helping him score 18 runs. Pyne also made his mark with his arm, as the lefty was slated to be one of the Indians’ top starting pitchers this season.
For Danny Crouse, 2020 was supposed to be his breakout season, as he had earned the starting shortstop spot after serving as a backup in 2019.
“I was extremely excited to watch him play this season,” Alaimo said.
Crouse’s double play partner would have been second baseman Domenick Bukowski, who also was a backup for most of his junior year but showed his potential by hitting .286 when his number was called.
“He is a solid defender and a hard worker,” Alaimo said of Bukowski. “He’s a great teammate. Dom was ready to play every day this season and show how good he is.”
Rounding out the senior class is pitcher and second baseman Sam Dionne, who showed his capability on the mound last year when he started three games and gave up zero earned runs, all while striking out 16 batters and walking just one.
“Sam was going to be at the top of our pitching rotation this year and was going to have a tremendous season,” Alaimo said. “He is also a very good infielder with good range, clean exchange and quick release.”
The disappointment for the six seniors and the team as a whole is tremendous, but it is also for Alaimo, who was eager to see his senior class make a run into the state tournament one last time.
“This was a special group of kids who have played and grew up together on the baseball diamond in Newington,” Alaimo said. “For them to lose the last chance to strive together to accomplish a goal they have been aiming at for years was tough. It can be hard when you're young to have perspective on things like this. In the beginning it was really difficult for them, but when looking at the big picture, a pandemic, missing out on a season of baseball is hardly a cause for major concern. They are all honors students and having spoken with all of them, they understand the bigger picture. Luckily these boys have great heads on their shoulders and although they are enormously disappointed, they will handle this adversity well and become stronger because of it. I know them well enough to know that is true.”