MIDDLETOWN — They did their best to hold their heads high as they gathered themselves in the dugout and packed their equipment bags, trying not to let the emotion of the moment get to them. Across the field, the Amity Spartans were celebrating a record-setting fourth straight Class LL title while the Warde Mustangs could only watch and wonder … what if?

Warde came within inches — literally — of possibly capturing its second state title but it was not to be as Amity scored the winner in the bottom of the seventh on a based-loaded, two-out walk on two ball calls that several Mustangs players felt were strikes, to win 4-3 and capture the CIAC championship on June 11 at Palmer Field.

“We had a chance,” said Mustangs center fielder Giacomo Brancato, whose sixth-inning, three-run homer to left tied the game. “It’s just unfortunate that we couldn’t come up with the victory. I’m proud of everyone.”

After starter Reese Maniscalco battled through six innings, overcoming a three-run first, where he walked three and gave up a key two-run double to Eli Oliphant, Warde coach Brett Conner went to his second ace, John Natoli. But Natoli quickly got into trouble, hitting Chris Winkel to lead off the bottom of the seventh. With one out, Winkel stole second and advanced to third on a wild pitch, forcing Conner to order intentional walks to Brian Ronai and John Nolan, loading the bases.

Oliphant hit into a fielder’s choice as third baseman Joey Deutsch made a great play to get the force out but Max Scheps worked a walk — the 2-1 and 3-1 pitches both looked to be strikes but were not called by home plate umpire Jeff Andrews — to force in the winning run and give Amity a record fourth straight title.

“They had a guy at third and that forced us to get force outs,” Conner said. “We did a great job getting that second out but you know, that happens. It’s unfortunate … that last play of the game … my kids fought hard and I’m very proud of them. That’s all I can ask. They fought all season long.”

The game started in a steady drizzle that only got worse as play moved to the bottom of the first. Maniscalco walked leadoff hitter Andrew Hauge, Chris Winkel reached on a bunt single and Pat Winkel walked to load the bases with no one out. Maniscalco rallied to strike out Ronai and Nolan but Oliphant (who’s headed to Fairfield University in the fall) hammered a double to right center to make it 2-0 and run No. 3 scored on a throwing error before officials delayed the game for a 1:47 minutes.

“I had a really tough time just gripping the ball in the rain and that led to me not locating my pitches and walking three in the first,” Maniscalco said. “Coming back through, I knew my team was going to battle and if they were, so was I.”

And battle back they did. Deutsch made five solid fielding plays at third, much to the chagrin of Amity coach Sal Coppola, to keep the Amity lead from growing.

“I’ll tell you what, that third baseman single-handedly kept them in the game,” Coppola said. “We hit the four or five hard shots right at him and he made every play and I’m like, ‘One time, let one go by him.’ He made every play.”

Finally, in the sixth, the Warde bats awoke. Owen Buhrendorf reached on a fielder’s choice with one out and advanced when Deutsch reached on a fielding error, bringing up Brancato - who had come into the game hitless in 10 at-bats in Class LL play - and he took a 3-1 fastball from Oliphant and hammered it over the fence in left to tie the game at 3-3.

“He threw me a 3-0 fast ball right down the middle and I sat on another fastball,” Brancato said. “I got it in the same spot and it was and I hit it out.”

“If anyone was going to do it, it’s Giacomo,” Maniscalco said. “He’s a bulldog.”

But Amity pulled it out in the bottom of the seventh, giving the Spartans their sixth state championship in program history.

“I can’t describe it,” Coppola said. “I’m just sort of numb. Thinking about the possibility of that (winning four straight) happening, it’s impossible. It’s special.”

And while the Warde players packed their equipment in silence, Conner reflected on the season.

“It was an exciting game, a great state championship game,” he said. “It hurts but it was a great season. My kids fought hard and that’s all I can ask. I’m extremely proud of them.”

celsberry@ctpost.com;