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Senior captain Jake Bodner and the Branford baseball team were looking to make a triumphant comeback this spring after the Hornets went through a difficult season in 2019. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Bennett Gentile is one of six seniors who Hornets’ Head Coach Stephen Malafronte credited for their hard work on the ballfield these past few years. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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Featuring a roster full of young talent and strong leaders, Head Coach Stephen Malafronte and the Branford baseball squad were aiming for a bounceback season in 2020. After winning just five games last year, the Hornets had their sights set on getting back to their winning ways of previous seasons.
With six seniors and six juniors leading the charge, Malafronte’s squad felt that it had what it takes to compete for a division title this year. Despite their high aspirations, Coach Malafronte and his athletes were anything but surprised when the CIAC canceled the spring season due to COVID-19.
“Most of us knew it was a foregone conclusion, that it was eventually going to happen,” said Malafronte. “Limited contact between us all has made things more difficult. You can text and stuff, but not being able to see each other just made it even more difficult.”
Branford headed into this year with Jake Bodner and Bennett Gentile ready to lead the team as its senior captains. Bodner and Gentile are both pitchers who were also going to play the outfield for the Hornets.
“They were both three-year varsity starters. They were there for the good times. They were there for our struggles,” Coach Malafronte said of his captains. “They were beginning to create their own team and their own chemistry. This was their year to jell together and produce a quality product again. It’s a shame they didn’t get an opportunity to do that. From last year to this year, the team chemistry has gotten a lot stronger. I attribute a lot of that to Jake and Bennett.”
In addition to the two captains, Branford’s 2020 roster was also slated to feature seniors Louis Armino, Ben Cooke, and AJ Bruchman, and Sean Healy. Malafronte said that every member of his senior class brought something different to the field, while also forming strong connections outside the diamond.
“This senior group had a very strong connection. We have been working with some of them since Babe Ruth and Little League,” said Malafronte. “There was a lot of learning with these guys on both ends. The coaching staff learned a lot from this group and different ways to teach kids. This class was such a hardworking group. They worked as hard as anybody else.”
The Hornets were also bringing back juniors Justin Elpi, Colin McNeil, Carter Shannon, Jack Van Gelder, Teddy Zabawa, and Dominic Bonnano, along with sophomores Sam Smith and Sam Russo. Coach Malafronte was expecting a big leap from every one of these athletes.
Russo was Branford’s shortstop as a freshman, and Smith took the mound as a starting pitcher. Malafronte said that both players looked “primed and ready to go” for their sophomore campaigns.
McNeil, also a pitcher, received looks from Division I schools in his sophomore year. Coach Malafronte was expecting McNeil to “take command” and become the Hornets’ ace this season. Elpi played center field for Branford last year, while Shannon was the team’s leading hitter. Van Gelder and Zabawa each brought stability to the pitching staff.
Branford had a lot of underclassmen on its roster last season. Malafronte knows there’s no way to replace the critical experience those athletes would have received had they taken the field this year.
“That’s where our season took its damage. We had a very young group of kids, a lot of juniors really looking to gain experience and grow and take steps forward,” Malafronte said. “It hurts our program to miss out on this year.”
Malafronte was encouraged by the fact that this year’s team was determined to improve upon last year’s performance. With numerous returning starters, Malafronte said that his players were looking to “make their marks” in the program and demonstrate that they can succeed at the varsity level. Despite last year’s struggles, Malafronte felt that the 2020 club featured excellent chemistry that he believed would translate on to the field.
“This group really jelled. They had a lot of positive energy coming into the season,” said Malafronte. “They really felt like they had nothing to lose. They were looking to make moves forward. They wanted to qualify for states. Looking at the schedule, they felt they had a chance to compete for the division. And as a coaching staff, we agreed with them.”
While Branford will have to wait another year to make its comeback, Coach Malafronte has confidence in the group that will be returning for next year. Malafronte feels that if his athletes continue to put in work during the offseason, the Hornets have every chance to trend upward in 2021.
“I hope we continue to move upward. Without a year of baseball, I’m interested to see where my players are at. Will they be ready to play? I sure hope so,” Malafronte said. “Our youth was talented, and I’m hoping it continues to develop in some way, shape, or form.”
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