MIDDLETOWN, June 8, 2021 – It would be much easier to remember Tuesday’s Class L semifinal battle with top-ranked Hand-Madison if the Avon High baseball team had come away with a victory. But chances are that few that were involved in his epic high school contest will forget what happened at Palmer Field.
Few will forget the gritty action on the field, the plays at the plate or the tension as pitchers from both teams battled for outs with runners on base knowing that one big hit could end the ballgame.
It finally ended in the bottom of the tenth inning.
With one out, Hand’s Anthony Depino doubled to left field and scored three pitches later when teammate Jack Pireaux ripped a single down the third base line that a diving Avon third baseman Luke Coppen couldn’t stop to lift top-ranked Hand to a 2-1 victory and their first-ever berth in a CIAC state title game in baseball.
No. 12 Avon (16-7), which had won 10 of their last 11 games, was looking for their first appearance in state championship game since 1968.
“I told their coach that this was the best high school game I have ever been a part of,” said Avon High coach Jon Yolles, who has been coaching high school baseball for 15 years. “(We) battled out of jams all day. Every pitch was stressful. They did a great job on the other side doing the same thing. (Hand) worked out of jams all over the place. You look up and can’t believe the game is over.”
Both teams made plays throughout the game. Both teams threw out runners at the plate and had pitchers who came up crucial strikeouts with men on base.
Hand coach Travis Lapointe said it was the toughest high school game he had ever been involved in. “Avon’s baseball team is absolutely unbelievable,” he said. “They fought us really, really hard. They deserved to be in the finals, too.”
It was 1-1 in the bottom of the sixth inning when Depino doubled to left field. He moved to third base on a ground ball out. The tension rose when Avon starter Ben Angus walked Daniel Weinstein but Angus got Eli Davies to ground out to end the threat.
Avon’s Dylan Love led off the top of the seventh with a single and stole second base. But he was stranded there when Tiger reliever Mike Engelhart retired the next three batters to end the threat.
In the bottom of the seventh inning, Hand’s leadoff hitter Giovanni Roman singled and moved to second base on a successful sacrifice bunt. But Avon reliever Alex Grant, a sophomore lefthander, struck out the next two batters and send the game into extra innings.
Avon threatened in the eighth inning when Angus led off with a double and Zach Aiello followed with a single. Angus stole third to put additional pressure on Hand reliver James Arida.
But Arida didn’t flinch. He struck out the next two batters. He hit Avon DH Tabor Engel to load the bases and struck out Dylan Love to end the inning.
Lapointe said he saw a similar performance from Arida in practice on Sunday. “He dominated our best hitters on Sunday at practice and he looked just like today,” Lapointe said. “He is a senior. He has heart and he is a bulldog. That kid won us the game.”
Grant came up big for Avon in the bottom of the eighth inning. Depino reached on an error and Pireaux reached first base on a soft fly ball to right field. The Falcons intentionally walked Weinstein for a second time to load the bases with one out. Grant responded by striking out Davies and getting Roman to fly out to right field.
Grant struck out six in 3.1 innings of work.
Avon took a 1-0 lead in the first inning when Angus walked, moved to third on a double from Zach Aiello and scored on a sacrifice fly from Daniel Bae.
Hand tied the game in the third inning when Ben Kuja singled and stole second base. He scored when Depino reached on an error.
With one out, Pireaux grounded out to Dylan Love at third base, who threw out Pireaux at first base. In the meantime, Depino tried to advance to third base. The throw from Nick Amatulli at first base was high and Depino tried to race home. But Avon shortstop Luke Coppen was in position to back up the play and threw out Depino at home with Borenstein making the tag.
Hand made some big defensive plays in the fourth inning.
Tabor Engle led off the inning with a walk. With one out, Jesse Bernaduci doubled to left field and Engle nearly scored but the throw from left field Eli Davies to shortstop Jack Pireaux to catcher Chris Engelhart just got him at the plate. After the tag, Engelhart was alert enough to fire to third base and Bernarduci was thrown out trying stretch his double into a triple.
It was emotional throughout the game. Both teams were not shy about celebrating big plays with each other.
“They just kept battling and battling all season,” Yolles said. On May 7, the Falcons were 6-5 having lost three of their last four games. But they won 10 of their next 11 to earn a s pot in the semifinals.
“Every day, I came to the ballpark, they were ready to go. They had a lot of energy and were fired up. It will be really hard to say goodbye to these guys,” Yolles said. “It will be hard.”
NOTES: It was Avon’s first semifinal appearance since 2017. … It was the first extra-inning game of the season for both teams.
Hand 2, Avon 1 (10)
Avon (16-7) 100 000 000 0 — 1-6-2
Hand (20-2) 001 000 000 1 — 2-8-0
Ben Angus, Alex Grant (7) and Emmett Borenstein; Matthew Carone, Mike Engelhart (6), James Arida (8) and Chris Engelhart; WP: Arida; LP: Grant (4-2); 2B: Anthony Depino (H) 2, Ben Angus (A), Jesse Bernarduci (A), Emmett Borenstein (A)
Class L semifinals
At Palmer Field
Hand 2, Avon 1 (10)
Berlin 8, Lyman Hall 5
Saturday’s championship game
At Palmer Field, Middletown
Hand (20-2) vs. Berlin (21-3), 7 p.m.
Pireaux wins it for Hand 2-1 over Avon #ctbase
Hand clinches spot in Class L state championship for the first time in program history pic.twitter.com/9J3xekk3SO
— Pete Paguaga (@PetePaguaga) June 8, 2021