Foran baseball tops North Haven to complete improbable Class L championship run

Members of the Foran baseball team celebrate their 8-2 win over North Haven in the Class L championship game on Saturday at Palmer Field in Middletown.

Members of the Foran baseball team celebrate their 8-2 win over North Haven in the Class L championship game on Saturday at Palmer Field in Middletown.

MIDDLETOWN >> With the last putout at second base, the celebration started at Palmer Field.

The Foran baseball team, a true Cinderella story, had set state high school baseball on its collective ear. The 8-2 win over North Haven for the Class L state championship Saturday night was not only the first in program history, but the Lions also became the lowest seed (No. 32) in CIAC history to win a title in any sport.

“We faced so much adversity at the beginning of the season,” senior left fielder John Lickteig said. “We thought, ‘Why not, we have eight games left. This is our senior season. Let’s just play.’ It hasn’t really set in yet. This is crazy, a dream come true.”

Foran’s story has been well-told: Losing 11 of its first 12 games to start the season, the Lions rallied to finish the regular season at 7-13. Baseball is one of a handful of CIAC sports that chooses to fill out its 32-team field in each division rather than award byes, therefore, Foran was allowed in as the last seed in Class L on a tiebreaker over New London.

Then the Lions upset No. 1 seed East Lyme and No. 16 Berlin in consecutive days and the team was rolling toward its date with North Haven Saturday night and first trip to the final since 1977.

“We believed in what we practiced every day and knew one day it was going to pay off and it finally did,” senior second baseman Mike Leson said. “We got hot at the right time. It was very tough not to give up. I can’t lie, there was probably a moment where we thought the season was over and we were just hanging on trying not to be the worst team in Foran history.”

Head coach Garrett Walker was a standout former player in the program under his dad Ken, the longtime coach over two stints (1986-2003 and 2011-12) and Garrett’s predecessor. Ken passed away in June of 2012.

“He’d congratulate them first of all after a 1-11 tart, then say to me, ‘Good job for being there when they needed you,’” Garrett said when asked what his dad would have told him. “He was in the semis a bunch of times, I played in the semis under him (2003). I wish he was here answering these questions instead of me right now.”

Lickteig got it started for Foran (12-13) with one out in the first inning on a single to left field. Then Justin Lanese blasted a two-run homer into the right-center field bleachers at Palmer Field for the quick 2-0 lead.

Kevin Lanese and David Payne also singled in the inning to set up first and third with two outs. North Haven coach Bob DeMayo didn’t waste any more time, bringing in ace Brendan Clark, who had won all four of North Haven’s previous games in relief.

Mike Leson greeted Clark with a hard grounder up the first-base line. North Haven first baseman Vin Anastasio dove for it, but the ball kicked off the bag over Anastasio into right field, scoring Lanese with Foran’s third run.

“I’ve been thinking destiny for a long time. (After that kick off the bag), I felt, ‘We might be a team you can’t get to right now.’” Walker said.

Lickteig’s two-run single tacked on two more runs for Foran in the fourth.

“Our pitchers throw the same way just about every game,” DeMayo said. “That team just hits the hell out of the ball, I was impressed. How they were 1-11 at the beginning of the year? Our pitchers carried us all year long. We were in every ballgame. They just took us apart. They were shots. They didn’t give us a chance to get in the game at all.”

North Haven (18-8) answered in the bottom of the inning with two. Steve Erbe tripled in Clark and Kevin Lucey drove in Erbe with an infield single. Vin Anastasio singled and Chris Stevens walked to load the bases.

Walker relieved Hartley with Chris Goglia, who went 3-1 on Chris Somma before coming back to strike him out and end the threat.

“Chris loves to pitch in emotional times. That was the right time for him,” Walker said. “I think he was coming out of the bullpen before I even asked him to.”

Then Leson got the two runs right back in the top of the fifth with a majestic blast into the right-center field bleachers, a two-run homer that finished the day for Clark.

“I’ve never hit a home run before, so I didn’t know what it was going to feel like,” Leson said. “I saw it go over the fence. It was an unbelievable feeling jogging around the bases for the first time.”

It was the 12th straight year a team from the Southern Connecticut Conference won a state title - and this was the most improbable of them all.

“When somebody plays baseball like that, there’s not much you can do,” said DeMayo, who has coached North Haven since 1959, winning 884 games.