Foran baseball’s magical season one for the history books

Foran shortstop Justin Lanese is greeted at home plate after hitting a two-run homer in an 8-2 win over North Haven in the CIAC Class L baseball championship June 10 at Palmer Field in Middletown.

Foran shortstop Justin Lanese is greeted at home plate after hitting a two-run homer in an 8-2 win over North Haven in the CIAC Class L baseball championship June 10 at Palmer Field in Middletown.

MIDDLETOWN >> It wasn’t all that long ago when the season objective for the greatest Cinderella story in Connecticut high school history was quite simple and not terribly ambitious.

“We were trying to avoid being the worst team in Foran baseball history,” senior co-captain Justin Lanese said.

The Lions were coming off an eight-run loss to Branford on May 1 that dropped its season record to 1-11. The six-week transformation has been nothing short of remarkable. The capper came June 10th in the form of an 8-2 victory over North Haven at Palmer Field for the CIAC Class L state championship, the school’s first title since 1977.

“I think it’s safe to say now we’re one of the best teams in Foran history,” Lanese said.

Foran (12-13) can also safely lay claim to another distinction for all time. It’s the most unlikely team ever crowned state champion in Connecticut.

Ranked 32nd and last in the Class L field, the Lions are the lowest seed to win a state championship in any sport in CIAC history.

The Portland girls’ soccer team, which won the Class S championship as a 29th seed, previously held the honor. East Catholic, as a 32nd seed, reached the 1992 Class L boys’ basketball final but lost. The closest baseball team to pull of the feat was Shelton, which made the Class LL final as the 30th seed in 1989 and lost to Simsbury.

It was a team that found its way into the Class L field by pure luck.

The CIAC distributed a randomly generated number to every school at start of the school year to be used as a playoff tiebreaker. Foran, at 7-13, was in contention for the final Class L playoff slot since only 31 teams won the minimum eight games to qualify. It’s random number was enough to break a tie with seven-win New London, but not Middletown, which had a chance to win game number seven on the final day of the season.

Several players trekked from Milford to Enfield to watch Middletown’s final game knowing what was at stake. Enfield came through with a win, and Foran was in the tournament.

Pressure was never a factor for the Lions, even prior to the state final.

“We’re the last seed; we barely got in,” Lanese said. “That took all the pressure off. Teams were expecting us to lose. When they’re expecting you to lose, we could play loose. You play loose, good things happen.”

Foran showed few, if any weakness during its five-game state tournament run. All facets were on display against North Haven, a team that’s won five state championships under Bob DeMayo, the state’s career coaching wins leader.

Lanese’s two-run homer ignited a three-run top of the first. It was 5-0 when John Lickteig (4-for-5) singled home two more in the fourth.

When North Haven (18-7) scored two and loaded the bases with two outs in the fourth, Foran coach Garrett Walker called on Chris Goglia to end the threat. Goglia struck out Craig Somma to preserve the lead.

By the time Mike Leson blasted a two-run homer in the top of the fifth to extend Foran’s lead to 7-2, it was clear the Lions wouldn’t be denied.

How, exactly, was this team ever 1-11?

“They had to get their feet wet and develop their team culture,” Walker said. “It took a little longer than we expected. I’ll take that every year if that’s the outcome.”

Walker was 10-years old when his father, Ken, led the school to its first unlikely championship. Foran football had never been much of a player on the state level, and expectations were modest as it started the 1994 season. The Lions went 10-1. That included overcoming a 10-point deficit to beat traditional state power Hand in the Class M title game. It was Foran’s first, and only, football state championship.

Garrett Walker has long followed in his father’s footsteps, first as an athlete at Central Connecticut State and then into the coaching profession. He spent three seasons as his father’s baseball assistant at Foran before Ken Walker died suddenly in June 2012.

Foran hired Garrett to replace his father that summer. Prior to his first home game as head coach, the school officially renamed the baseball field in honor of Ken Walker.

“I always tell people if I’m here for 50 years, this will never be my program,” Garrett Walker said. “It’s always going to be my father’s program and I wish he was here instead of me right now.”

Ken Walker took Foran baseball to the state semifinals three times. The final trip came in 2003, when Garrett was a senior. Ken Walker retired after the season, but returned a few years later.

This victory, Garrett said, is a tribute to his father.

“I’m going to go home, go on his field, I’m going to cry a lot, and then I’m going to be real happy,” Garrett Walker said. “I know he’d kick me in the ass for being sad that he’s not here. But the kids know who he is. I’ve got colleagues who tell me they wish he was here. He’s a part of Foran, and I really miss him right now.”

Chip Malafronte, the Register sports columnist, can be reached at Follow Chip on Twitter @ChipMalafronte.