SIMSBURY – They are called the Renegades but they could easily be known as the vagabonds. One of six teams in the little-known Connecticut Collegiate Baseball League (CCBL), the Tobacco Valley Renegades played home games at four locations this summer including Simsbury’s Memorial Field and Tunxis Mead in Farmington.
The Renegades had players from Farmington, Canton, Bristol, Windsor Locks, Branford and Plainville. They also had spunk.
Tobacco Valley won three straight playoff games to earn a spot in the CCBL’s best-of-3 championship series against the two-time defending league champion Southington Shock, who won a league-record 19 games in the regular season.
After dropping a five-run decision in game one, Tobacco Valley stunned Southington with a 3-2 decision in eight innings in game two when Farmington’s Jack Harvey rapped a two-out RBI single to right field to give the Renegades the victory and force a decisive game three.
“We were scrappy, always positive and they never quit,” Tobacco Valley’s first-year coach Bill Kelley said. “Our buzzword was battle, battle, battle.”
Canton’s Travis Lane, who pitched at Springfield College, kept Tobacco Valley in a position to win. He gave up six hits and two runs in the first 2 1/3 innings but he didn’t allow a single hit in the final 5 2/3 innings.
Southington spoiled Tobacco Valley’s dream of a championship with a dominant performance in a 4-1 victory in game three. Pitcher Mark Cole, who plays on a club team at the University of Connecticut, threw six innings of no-hit ball and struck out four to lead the Shock to their third straight league championship.
Farmington’s C.J. Schoeherr broke up the no-hit bid for Tobacco Valley with a leadoff double in the seventh inning. “He was a little guy but he threw pretty hard,” Schoeherr said. “He had great, great command. I had a hard time getting (my bat) around on him.”
In game two, Southington’s Donny Crook, who plays for Central Connecticut State, scattered nine hits and struck out six. He allowed three runs but just one was earned.
“The thing that impressed me the most (this season) was the pitching,” Kelley said. “There was no lousy pitching. It was 82 to 88 mph and maybe someone would hit 90 on occasion. And they were good with their second and third pitches.
“This was real baseball. And you had to have eight good players around them to win.”
Tim Vincent of Simsbury founded the league in 2009 to give college-age players from Connecticut a place to play more disciplined, competitive baseball. “We try to produce the same collegiate environment that they have the rest of the year,” Vincent said. “Early batting practice, infield practice, strategy, and a disciplined coaching philosophy that includes no swearing or profanity.”
Players from ages 18-26 are eligible. Many play on collegiate teams but some play on club teams. Others are former high school and American Legion players yearning to get back on the diamond. The league plays with wooden bats.
Southington’s Ben Schmacher graduated from the University of Vermont, where he played with the Catamounts. He has spent the last three years with the Shock, earning All-CCBL honors in 2009 and 2010. This is his final year of eligibility as a player.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s a good place for guys who want to get (at-bats) and an opportunity.”
Schoeherr, who was a good player at Farmington High and with the Unionville American Legion program, attends James Madison University. He’s not good enough to play at the Division I level but didn’t want to give up the sport.
“I really missed it and needed it,” he said. “It’s very competitive. The pitching is good and the fielding is good. The wooden bats make it harder to hit but that brings out the real hitters.”
The game is played at a crisp pace and are free. Nearly every athlete is from Connecticut and they are impressive. In the final two games, outfielders for Southington and Tobacco Valley both flew to chase down a number of hard-hit fly balls.
There are plenty of good collegiate players from the Division I, II and II levels. Tobacco Valley catcher Alex Bulger of Plainville played at the University of Hartford while teammate A.J. Johnson played at the University of New Haven and Jordan English was the starting centerfielder at Bryant College. Southington’s Eric Lemke played at Endicott, Steve Howard played at Trinity and Steve Clout played at New Haven.
One former CCBL player has signed a professional contract. Simsbury’s Mike Bourdon, who played at Northwest Catholic High, signed with the Tampa Bay Rays earlier this year and is playing in a Class A rookie league.
“It has gotten better,” Vincent said. “The talent level has gone up. People are seeking us out now. The first year I had to recruit kids for nearly every team.”
The league currently has teams in Southington, West Hartford (Knights), Manchester (Mavericks), Glastonbury (Arrows) and Simsbury (SaberCats). There are territories assigned to each team but exceptions can be made for competitive balance.
West Hartford, under the leadership of Rich Rostowsky, finished with a 5-16 record for the second straight year. They were eliminated by Tobacco Valley in a one-game playoff, 3-0. The Knights play their home games at Conard.
Vincent would like to add another two teams next summer, perhaps in Meriden, Middletown, South Windsor or Windsor Locks.
Southington 4, Tobacco Valley 1