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06/30/2022 12:00 AM

Valley Baseball Shined on the Diamond This Spring

Senior captain James Marsden was named the Shoreline Conference Player of the Year after leading the Valley Regional baseball team to 22 victories and a couple of deep postseason runs this spring. File photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Courier

Featuring a talented roster from top to bottom, the Valley Regional baseball team put together a memorable 2022 season that won’t be forgotten any time soon. The Warriors posted an overall record of 22-4 while winning two games in both the Shoreline Conference Tournament and the Class S State Tournament, advancing to the championship game of Shorelines and the quarterfinal round in states.

With a solid cast of returning players, Head Coach Brian Drinkard felt confident that Valley would continue its run as one of the top squads in the Shoreline Conference this year. Right off the bat, the Warriors were faced with a big test when they played North Branford in their season opener.

Valley trailed North Branford by 2 runs entering the top of the seventh inning, but rallied for 3 runs in the frame to earn a 6-5 win versus the Thunderbirds in its first game of the year. Senior captain James Marsden went 3-for-4 with 2 runs scored and 4 RBI at the plate for Valley Regional. Juniors Braeden Sparaco and Colin Carver shared the pitching duties for Coach Drinkard’s club in the victory.

“We ran into a little of pitching trouble and fielding trouble, and we found ourselves in a game that we felt we deserved to win,” Drinkard said. “I think as team we knew that we were never going to be out of a game and always play it out. That was a real positive way to start the season.”

Valley’s come-from-behind win painted the landscape for just how fiercely competitive the Warriors would be throughout the season. Following the North Branford game, Valley won 14 of its next 16 contests during a regular season that featured 8 wins by a double-digit margin.

As the top seed in the Shoreline Conference Tournament, Valley defeated East Hampton (15-1) and North Branford (8-3) in the first two rounds of the draw with the North Branford win marking the Warriors’ 14th-consecutive victory. Valley went on to face No. 2 seed Old Saybrook in the league championship game.

Valley got off to a good start by scoring 2 runs in the first inning of the Shoreline final. However, Old Saybrook tied the game in the second inning and then took the lead for good in the sixth. In the end, the Rams came away with a 4-2 victory to claim the Shoreline Conference title.

“We got to the finals and came out hot in the championship game. We got ourselves into a dogfight,” said Coach Drinkard. “Take your hat off to [Old Saybrook]. They got some big hits and that sophomore superstar [Connor Lane] they have took over the game and made it tough on us. We battled, but didn’t find the hit that we needed to get back in that game.”

Valley’s nice run in Shorelines gave the team high expectations heading into the Class S State Tournament. As the No. 2 seed, the Warriors claimed an 8-3 win against East Windsor in a first-round contest. Sparaco struck out 7 batters for Valley, while Marsden and fellow senior captain Andrew Salbinski each had an RBI.

The Warriors then defeated Plainville by a 15-1 score in the second round of the state bracket. Marsden and Sparaco both had 3 RBI, and Carver hit a home run for Valley Regional in the rout.

Coach Drinkard emphasized the importance of playing non-conference games in the regular season in order to help Valley be prepared for the best competition that Connecticut had to offer during the State Tournament. Valley’s non-conference wins versus Canton, Woodstock Academy, and Putnam gave the Warriors some extra experience against unfamiliar foes as they entered postseason play, and that experience paid off for the Warriors as they advanced through the early rounds of states.

“We scheduled a pretty tough out-of-conference schedule. We were feeling pretty good about ourselves,” Drinkard said. “Of course, we had a great in-conference record but to play teams like that out of conference and to come away with three wins, we were feeling really good about ourselves.”

After winning its first two games, Valley took a 9-5 home loss against No. 7 seed Oxford in the quarterfinals of the Class S State Tournament. Coach Drinkard felt that the Warriors had some factors beyond their control working against them that contributed to the outcome.

“I thought we got unfortunate in the game that we lost. Our field is gigantic. We hit the ball really well, but unfortunately, we hit the ball in the air,” said Drinkard. “Out of a lot of high school baseball fields, we might have had six or seven home runs in that game, but unfortunately in our field, with a really good center fielder from Oxford, they turned what could have been home runs or extra bases into outs.”

The Warriors wound up playing a ton of baseball during the 2022 campaign. Although Valley was unable to win its second-straight Shoreline title, Coach Drinkard felt proud of his club for playing top-notch baseball all season long.

Senior captain Marsden finished his Valley baseball career with an exceptional season that saw him earn a spot on the All-Shoreline Conference First Team to go along with being named the Shoreline Conference Player of the Year. Marsden completed the season with a .440 batting average, 3 home runs, 25 RBI, and 14 stolen bases.

Another catalyst for the Warriors’ offense was junior Sam Hutchinson, who joined Marsden on the All-Shoreline Conference First Team, marking his second-straight All-Conference nod. Hutchinson posted a .338 batting average with 7 homers, 37 RBI, and 19 stolen bases on the year.

Sparaco solidified a spot on the All-Shoreline Conference Second Team for Valley Regional. Junior Jack Finnegan earned All-Shoreline Conference Honorable Mention on behalf of the Warriors.

In addition to the captains Marsden and Salbinski, Valley’s senior class for the 2022 season also included John Guthrie, Oscar Pelkey, Kyle Ghilani, and Kevin Willetts-Johnson. Coach Drinkard knows that the Warriors are going to miss the contributions of their seniors next year. Some played bigger roles than others, but they all did their part to help the team succeed. Along those lines, Drinkard said that Marsden and Salbinski did an excellent job of leading Valley as its captains.

“Their leadership will be missed,” Drinkard said. “They’re top players on the team, so anytime you have to replace players like that, it can be tough.”

Still, Coach Drinkard feels excited about the opportunities that next season will present. With six seniors graduating, other players will get their chance to take on bigger roles in 2023.

“In high school, you always look forward to a new season, because you don’t know who’s going to step up. We have some good young players that are going to have an opportunity to step in, along with some seniors that have kind of been waiting for their time,” said Drinkard. “It will be fun to watch who steps up and who takes those opportunities and runs with them. It’s really unpredictable.”

It’s a major accomplishment for any high school baseball team to earn 22 victories in a single season. After seeing this year’s team pile up one win after another, Coach Drinkard will always call the 2022 edition of the Warriors a special group who etched their legacy in Valley baseball history with a remarkable year.

“These kids felt like they were going to win every time they stepped on to the field. I’m not sure momentum played a role in our season at all,” Drinkard said. “I really feel that every game they went out, they were the better team on the field and they were going to win.”

The Valley Regional baseball team’s roster for the 2022 season featured senior captains James Marsden and Andrew Sablinski; seniors John Guthrie, Oscar Pelkey, Kyle Ghilani, and Kevin Willetts-Johnson; juniors Braeden Sparaco, Reed Beighau, Brayden Shea, Sam Hutchinson, Lucas Rogers, Luke Buccaro, Jack Finnegan, Mason Erwin, Colin Carver, and Henry Breckenfeld; sophomore Aiden Babek; and freshmen Braden Karcich and Caleb Winkley.

Senior captain Andrew Salbinski helped the Warriors have a campaign to remember that saw the squad advance to the championship game of the Shoreline Conference Tournament for the second year in a row. File photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Courier
Junior Sam Hutchinson batted .338 with 7 seven homers, 37 RBI, and 19 stolen bases on his way to garnering All-Shoreline Conference First Team accolades for the Valley baseball team in 2022. File photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Courier
Braedan Sparaco turned in a solid junior season and pitched some big games for Valley this year, earning him a spot on the All-Shoreline Conference Second Team. File photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Courier
Junior Jack Finnegan received All-Shoreline Conference Honorable Mention after making key contributions for a Valley baseball squad that went 22-4 during the recent season. File photo by Wesley Bunnell/The Courier