Niantic's back in business ... and on top of zone

Niantic's David Peck (9) safely steals second base in the fourth inning as Waterford's Brent Conderino applies the tag without the baseball Tuesday night. Niantic, with a chance to clinch the Zone VI title, trailed 5-4 in the 10th inning when heavy rain and lightning suspended play.

East Lyme - Funny story. Niantic didn't have an American Legion team last summer, so some of its players joined the CT Bulldogs, an AAU team managed by Mike Aldrich.

The Bulldogs ended up replacing a team that dropped out during the Eastern Connecticut Major League season. They ended up getting to the semifinals and faced Johnny Rockets, the team Aldrich has played for since he was 18.

"It was kind of a funny scenario," Aldrich said. "I was not playing (for Rockets). That was a situation where I had to make an executive decision. Some people came to me and said, 'do you want us to fill in and help you out, coach, if you want to go play? I coached that team by myself last year. There was no way I was (playing). I had my opportunity to play the game, so I was sticking with my guys no matter what."

The Bulldogs beat Aldrich's other team and lost in the ECML final. "We almost won the ECML," Aldrich chuckled.

Niantic American Legion is back this season with several of those Bulldogs and Aldrich at the helm. Niantic (22-5) had a chance to win the Zone VI on Tuesday night, but its game against Waterford was suspended in the bottom of the 10th because of rain. Waterford led, 5-4, and Niantic had runners on first and second with two outs.

"It's just a great group of guys to be around," Aldrich said. "That was partly some motivation (to coach them in Legion)."

There was a one-year disruption in the program because of a personal issue, according to catcher Austin Toback.

"The reason we didn't have a team is because we didn't want to play for the coaches last year," Toback said.

Those players went and formed the Bulldogs. Aldrich got a call asking if he'd like to coach them, and he jumped at the opportunity.

Aldrich said that Niantic general manager Bob Banker asked him if he'd like to coach them, and, again, he said yes.

"There were some people who felt it was important to bring this somewhat of a historic program back," Aldrich said. "Similar situation to last summer — I got a phone call. 'Hey, do you want to coach these kids?' I couldn't pass up the opportunity."

Being away for one Legion season did cause one drawback - Niantic could only field a team of high school players.

"The rule states that because you didn't have a program last year, you're not allowed to bring back any post-grads to play," Aldrich said. "We're without a few kids. It's unfortunate. I feel bad for those kids because I know they want to be out there with their friends."

Those who could play for Niantic have more than made up for those who couldn't play. Prior to Tuesday, the team had a league-leading 199 runs and allowed the fewest (80).

"We played together last year, so we had some team chemistry together," Toback said. "We've just worked very hard this year to come together closer as a team."

Aldrich said, "It's all a tribute to the kids. We don't have a lot of guys, but they come every day and work."

n.griffen@theday.com

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