The Guilford baseball team showed a lot of heart while dropping several close contests in 2016. Thus far this year, the Indians are using the sting of those defeats to fuel themselves toward what they hope is a long run through the SCC and State tournaments.
Head Coach Brian Hayden and Guilford are back at it following a 9-11 regular season that yielded a bid to the Class L State Tournament, where the Indians took a first round loss to eventual finalist East Lyme. Six of those 11 losses came by just a run, and the Indians have already flipped the script in 2017 by posting a one-run victory versus last year’s Class LL runner-up Fairfield Warde in their opener on April 8. This past week, Guilford won another close one with a 2-0 final over Hand on April 10 to give the Tigers their first loss. On April 12, the Indians improved to 4-0 by recording an 8-1 victory against West Haven.
“In those first two games, we learned a lot. We lost six games by a run last year, so to win by one, especially against a team like Warde coming off of a state final, was great,” said Coach Hayden. “It came down to execution. We bunted and squeezed when they expect us to. It gave our guys confidence and helped them believe in the process. If we keep doing that, we’ll be fine. We want to compete to win in our division and, hopefully, win it. We’d like to be a part of the SCC Tournament because I feel we play in the best conference in the state, and so it helps to prepare us for states. Yet we have to take it one win at a time.”
A senior trio of varsity veterans are sitting in the captain’s chair for the Indians in 2016 All-SCC Hammonasset second baseman Sean Kellaher, first baseman Charlie Danaher, and outfielder Logan Hitchcock. Coach Hayden feels that they’re a terrific set of triplets who know how to lead on the field, while serving as excellent templates of how to act away from the diamond.
“Sean sets the tone in practice and leads by example as a tremendously hard worker. He is our No. 2 hitter and has an offensive presence,” said Hayden. “Logan brings up our energy and is vocal in practices. The team gets confidence from him. It’s his second year in the program, but it feels like he’s been here four years. Charlie has started for us since freshman year. He’s our No. 3 hitter, and he’s been our most consistent hitter the last three years. The guys gravitate towards him. All three of them are great in the community and are always willing to lend a hand.”
The Indians house a great deal of depth and talent among their upperclassmen, including ace Noah Rubino, a junior who won against Career on Opening Day and is also a reigning All-Hammonasset Team honoree. Other key upperclassmen include junior catcher Matt Donlan, junior outfielder and leadoff man Logan Driscoll, senior shortstop Brody Ulrich, junior outfielders Kam Miles and Evan Song, the latter who went 4-for-7 with two stolen bases for the first two games of the year; and junior Matt McGrath, a varsity rookie who earned the save against Fairfield Warde. Additionally on the hill, junior John Luke Cianciolo picked up the win versus Fairfield, while junior utility infielder Kevin Cargos looks to also provide some middle-inning relief. Not to be outdone, the Indians’ underclass has its own sparks with sophomore outfielders Jack Strand and Ben Panagoulias.
“Noah is a tall righty and a big presence. He never wavers in his confidence and is aggressive, which is what you want with your ace of the staff. Matt is one of the best defensive catchers in the state. He has a high baseball IQ and is like having a coach on the field. He’s our fifth hitter and plays the game on an even keel. Logan Dirscoll has a great work ethic; he’s added muscle and is fast. Brody is steady and gets the job done. Kam hits to all fields and is a great kid,” Hayden said. “John Luke is also a designated hitter for us and is a strong kid, Evan is tremendous defensively and very fast, Jack is a great athlete; Kevin, we can put anywhere and he can make any play, and Ben is a big bat.”
In Guilford’s 2-0 win against Hand, Driscoll set the tone on offense with a hard single up the middle to start the game. One batter later, Danaher hit a double down the left field line. Donlan reached on an error to extend the inning, and the Indians cashed in with RBI singles from Hitchcock and Cianciolo. Strand struggled with his control in the first two innings, but was helped out by his defense, which turned a timely double play to thwart a Tigers’ rally. Donlan also erased a leadoff walk in the first inning by throwing out a runner attempting to steal second.
“I thought Matt really helped us keep momentum by throwing their runner out,” said Hayden. “We know they are an aggressive team, but we like our chances having Matt back there. He is one of the best in the state defensively.”
Strand settled in during the middle innings, but allowed the first two runners to reach in the sixth. McGrath entered the game out of the bullpen and got right to work. Hand attempted a sacrifice bunt, but couldn’t get it down, and McGrath got a strikeout. Song then made a great catch by going a long way into the left-center gap for the grab. McGrath recorded the final out in the sixth and then slammed the door by getting the final three outs in the seventh.
“Matt has been tremendous for us this season. This is his second save in a big spot,” Hayden said. “Matt looked great during [pitcher’s and catcher’s preseason practices] and, in our first scrimmage, he earned our trust and has made the most of it.”
Against West Haven, Rubino threw six strong innings in which he fanned eight. Donlan was 2-for-3, including a bases-clearing double with Guilford trailing 1-0 in the third. Logan Hitchcock followed Donlan’s double with another two-out hit, driving in Donlan. Danaher added two RBI, plus Kellaher hit a solo homer. Cianciolo hit a double, while Miles and Song also had base hits on the afternoon. Driscoll and Strand stole bases for the Indians.
“Noah wasn’t sharp early, but made big pitches in the first two innings to get out of jams. Once he settled in, he was lights out,” said Hayden. “Matt’s at-bat in the third was tremendous. He was up 3-0, their pitcher battled back made it 3-2 count with two outs, and Donlan crushed a ball off the left-center fence and allowed us to relax a little. Those at-bats were huge for us. For them to trust the approach with two strikes and two outs shows you what type of players those boys are.”
While testing their mettle in an always competitive SCC, the Indians have also added teams like 2016 Class S state finalist Morgan to their non-conference schedule this season. With a cast of characters who have a passion for both the game and their town, Guilford appears to own the right formula to make the 2017 campaign one to remember.
“You want to lineup your pitching with the schedule, but there are no easy games in the SCC. We had the big win against Warde, plus Morgan was also a state finalist last year, so those games are opportunities to get better,” Hayden said. “The kids are buying into the culture and playing for one another. Those are core values we try to teach, and they can help you achieve goals. With the talent, chemistry, and culture, we feel we can play with anyone, but we are taking it one day at a time. We have a good group of kids here. They are proud to wear a high school jersey with a ‘G’ on it.”
From the Sidelines
Brian Hayden is back for his sixth season as Guilford’s skipper. Hayden is assisted by Nick Hahn and Jeff Bonetti.
Guilford now moves to the Oronoque Division as the SCC realigned its divisions for this season. The Indians are joined by familiar Hammonasset Division rival Foran, along with Fairfield Prep, Shelton, and Wilbur Cross.
The Indians are aiming to return to the SCC Tournament for the first time since the 2012 season this spring.