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Doug Bonjour: Fairfield LL pulls off remarkable feat

Published 6:02 pm, Saturday, August 2, 2014

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  • Umpire Rob Bleggi returns the ball to the pitcher Saturday July 10, 2010 during game action between Fairfield National and Trumbull National at Blackham School in Bridgeport.  Bleggi will be umpiring in the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania in August. Photo: Autumn Driscoll, ST / Connecticut Post
    Umpire Rob Bleggi returns the ball to the pitcher Saturday July 10, 2010 during game action between Fairfield National and Trumbull National at Blackham School in Bridgeport. Bleggi will be umpiring in the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania in August. Photo: Autumn Driscoll, ST

 

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Twenty-five years ago, Rob Bleggi took a summer vacation through the rolling hills of Pennsylvania to watch a childhood buddy play baseball.

That's the bare-bones version of the story, so here are the finer details of what happened: Bleggi, who was 14 at the time, witnessed history as Chris Drury, whom he played hockey with at Wonderland of Ice in Bridgeport, helped propel Trumbull to the Little League World Series championship.

With its stunning upset of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Trumbull became just the fourth team from Connecticut, and the first since Windsor Locks in 1965, to win a baseball world title. It took another 24 years after Trumbull's miracle run for another team from the Constitution State to even reach the United States final. And that run, authored last summer by Westport in South Williamsport, Pa., was historic in its own right.

Bleggi soaked in the sights and sounds of that summer of '89 and, like thousands of others, made it a priority to return to the LLWS. So, Bleggi returned the next year. And every year after that.

Bleggi even started umpiring Little League in 1994 when he was 19, so he's stored up plenty of memories. Nothing, however, compares to what he's seen these days, or to be more specific, since 2010.

For the fourth time in five years, Fairfield American has punched its ticket to the New England Regional in Bristol by winning a state title. Last year -- the one year the all-stars fell short of late -- Fairfield American's District 2 counterpart Westport made the trip.

"It's a crazy little thing that's happening right now," said Bleggi, whose father, Lou, has been the District 2 administrator since 1991.

Of the last nine Connecticut Little League champions, eight have come from three towns (Fairfield, Shelton, Glastonbury). Perhaps it's even more stunning that the last five state champs have all hailed from the same district. There are 12 districts across the state, and over 100 all-star teams played this season.

Consider that, prior to Fairfield American's state title in 2010, you have to turn the calendar all the way back to 1994 (Trumbull National) to find the last state champ from a current District 2 town. It should be noted also that Shelton National from District 3 reached the LLWS in 2008.

"To win a state championship five years in a row is an amazing accomplishment," said Bleggi, who now serves as the umpire in chief for District 2. "If a team wins from a district two years in a row, it's unbelievable. ... It might be unprecedented in the country."

It's not, actually, but that doesn't minimize the feat. A quick scan shows that repeat champions are common in other states, too: Newark National in Delaware, fresh off its LLWS appearance last summer, recently won its fourth straight state title. And in Iowa, Urbandale won three straight titles from 2007-2009 and another in 2013, culminating with a second LLWS appearance. If we're looking over a longer period (excluding the repeat factor), Toms River, N.J., has had two teams account for five state crowns since 1995. The most famous of the bunch was the 1998 LLWS-winning squad.

So, what's to make of this wave of success that District 2 Little League's teams have enjoyed? Is there an exact answer?

"Everybody asks us that as it's kind of built. Honestly, I don't know," said Larry Klein, who was an assistant coach with Fairfield American in 2010. "There were tons of really good players and coaches that came before 2010. It may be that there are competitive sports to Little League, like lacrosse and travel baseball."

That could be it. Or perhaps, just maybe, the recent collection of players are very talented. Either way, the ball hasn't stopped rolling since it started.

"It's not a coincidence that you hear the same teams from the same leagues," Bleggi said. "I don't think it's surprising. ... I think it starts with the first team that gets there. It trickles down."

After winning Fairfield's first state title, that 2010 team went 1-2 at the LLWS. The 2011 squad repeated as state champs, but lost in the New England Regional. Then, in 2012, Fairfield American returned to South Williamsport, where it went 2-2.

Jamie Flink, who has split time as a first baseman, outfielder and pitcher for the current crop of all-stars, said that Fairfield's past state champions have been inspiring.

"We definitely pay attention to the other teams," Flink said. "Watching them helped us a lot, because we know the kind of competition that we're going to see. It gets us prepared."

Fairfield American manager Mike Steed added: "There's a belief that they can do it because they know the kids that have been there before. They've played in the same league as they have, they know their brothers, siblings, have been there."

What this year's 12-year-old all-star team has accomplished is remarkable, and it will be remembered as such regardless of what happens at the New England Regional. Qualifying for the LLWS is never the expectation, many will say, because it's really, really hard to do it. Klein, perhaps, explained it best: "This is their 15 minutes. And whether those 15 minutes extend to Williamsport or not, it's still a great ride for all the players."

It surely is. It's fascinating that, given the number of teams spread across 12 districts in Connecticut, that a select few from the same pocket of the state have owned the limelight. It's not just at the 12-year-old level either, as Trumbull American won the 11s state title earlier this summer and Fairfield National was runner-up at the 10-year-old level.

Fairfield American, which last year won the 11s state title, has adopted a philosophy of "making everybody better," league president Neil Spagna said. He estimated that 300 kids are playing baseball in the summer across Fairfield American's three levels: the district all-stars, the tournament-B team and the house league.

"After a while, it creates an atmosphere where you just have a lot of good players," Spagna said. "Everyone's getting better. There's always going to be some kids at the top."

dbonjour@ctpost.com; twitter.com/DougBonjour

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