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Down to its last out, Avon rallies to earn spot in state finals

Avon assistant coach Chris Moore, left, and Will Boone, right, hug Sam Leopold after his game-winning home run against Guilford Wednesday to win the Section II championship, 7-5. Jack Stokesbury is on the far right.

MANSFIELD, July 25 – For most championship teams, there is at least one game in their run where they struggle like an old car sputtering on the last few drops of gasoline in its engine. As hard as they fight, they just can’t seem to get into gear.

For the first time this summer, the Avon Little League baseball’s Major Division (ages 11-12) All-Star team was challenged in last week’s Section II championship game. The tension was thick with a berth into the best-of-3 state championship series on the line. After two innings, Avon trailed Guilford by three runs and had not produced a hit.

Avon rallied to take the lead but Guilford took a one-run lead in the top of the sixth inning and was one out away from handing Avon its first loss of the summer.

But championship teams find a way.

After Dylan Nastri was intentionally walked with two outs, Avon’s Sam Leopold belted a three-run home run 200 feet over the centerfield fence to lift Avon to a thrilling 7-5 victory over Guilford and the Section II championship.

The win put Avon (13-0, 6-0 Section II) in the state championship finals for the first time in its history. Avon will face Section I champion Fairfield American in a three-game series beginning Saturday in New Haven at Annex Little League on Woodward Avenue.

Game 1 is Saturday at 3 p.m. with game 2 on Sunday at 7 p.m. Game 3 is Sunday at 7, if necessary.

Avon’s second tournament win of the summer against Guilford team was a thriller. “We were tested and we showed a lot of courage and resiliency,” Avon manager Stephen Harris said.

Avon had no challenges in winning seven games in the District 6 tournament, outscoring the opposition by a combined score of 80-4. The competition was better in the Section II tournament but Avon still won all five of its games and never trailed outside of an early four-run deficit in a win over Glastonbury after Avon had already clinched a spot in the Section II final.

Guilford, who went 3-2 in the Section II tournament, wasn’t intimidated. They nearly erased a seven-run deficit in a 10-8 loss to Avon about five days earlier. “We played our guts out,” Guilford skipper Marty Kellaher said. “To be so close (to winning) hurts but they know how proud we are of them.”

Guilford led 3-0 after two innings, sparked by a pair of home runs, including a two-run shot in the second inning that Avon outfielder Dan Renwick nearly caught. He had a piece of the ball in his glove but when he collided with the fence, it jarred the ball loose and over it went.

Avon cut the lead to one, 3-2, in the third with a key two-out single from Connor Harris. How close was Guilford to getting out of the inning? Harris had two strikes on him.

Avon added a pair of unearned runs in the fourth inning with hustle. Ryan Olestead reached on a two-out error and Jack Stokesbury barely beat out a ground ball for an infield single to keep the inning alive. Dylan Nastri ripped a two-RBI single to centerfield for a 4-3 edge.

Guilford tied the game in the fifth on an error and a two-out RBI single from Shawn Kellaher.

In the sixth, Guilford scored with two outs to take a one-run lead, 5-4. Shawn Russell walked, moved to second base after another walk and scored on a RBI single from Gray Stephens. And Avon fans held their breath with a deep fly ball from Guilford’s Matt Donlan that Stokesbury caught at the fence to end the inning.

Avon blew a chance to extend its lead in the fifth. Dan Renwick led off the inning with a triple but was thrown out at home plate trying to score later in the inning.

So, it came down to the bottom of the sixth inning and Guilford got two quick outs, raising the excitement in the Guilford dugout and among their fans.

But Avon’s Blake Thompson ripped a double on the first pitch he saw. Guilford intentionally walked Nastri, who hit two home runs against them earlier in the tournament and had the two-RBI double earlier in the game. That irked Leopold.

He ripped a home run to center field to win the game and spark a joyous celebration among the Avon faithful. “(Sam) has been a very good hitter for us,” skipper Stephen Harris said. “He has been struggling. This was exciting.”

Twice before Avon had reached the Section II finals, losing to Glastonbury American in 2011 and to Killingy in 2004.

Earlier in the Section II tournament, Connor Harris was 3-for-3 with a double and five RBI in a 12-9 win over Glastonbury. In a 5-2 win over Waterford South, Harris struck out 11 in four innings and Leopold had a three-RBI triple.

Nastri had five home runs in the six game tournament including a homer in a 7-2 win over Tolland. Thompson also had a home run. Ollestad had a three-run homer in the 10-8 win over Guilford as Avon had five homers in the game. Nastri had two home runs in a 11-7 win over Norwich, too.

Guilford    120  011 — 5-6-1
Avon         002  203 — 7-7-2
Cianciolo, Cattalino (4) and Donlan; Sam Leopold, Dylan Nastri (4) and Ollestad; 2B: Nastri (A), Thompson (A); 3B: Renwick (A); HR: Stephens (G), Cattalino (G)

Avon’s Dylan Nastri (1) goes to tag home plate in the third inning as Guilford catcher Matt Donlan tries to catch the ball. Nastri was safe.

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 30 years. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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