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Depth made selecting ECC All-Decade baseball team a challenge

Nowhere else in the state can trumpet the names O'Neill, Harvey, Varjas, Rousseau, Schiffner, Bidwell, McDonald, Davis, Campbell, Walker, Fordyce, Carignan ... OK. Apologies to the scores of others unintentionally omitted. But it's plenty sufficient to prove the point: Our corner is the baseball hub of Connecticut, having produced several Major Leaguers and some of the most successful coaches in state history.

So, the task of compiling an All-Decade team in baseball has its challenges: logistics, objectivity and proper research among them. Now imagine doing it around here, where the standards are higher than anywhere else.

It's a tough job. But someone's got to do it, right? Here, then, is the ECC All-Decade team (2010-2019). I sought opinions from five coaches I respect. Hope you enjoy it. (And, yes, the All-Decade softball team will be coming soon).

Coach of the Decade: Phil Orbe, Montville. This was not easy. Waterford's Art Peluso (three state title games, two state championships and two ECC Tournament titles) and East Lyme's Jack Biggs (five ECC Tournament titles, two state championship games) made compelling cases. But Orbe, who isn't coaching high school anymore, was exemplary in the front half of the decade.

Orbe led Montville to the 2010 and 2011 state titles — at the time giving Montville three state championships in six years. The Indians defeated rival Waterford in the 2010 title game and returned as the No. 20 seed in 2011 and won again. He also led the Indians to the 2015 ECC title over Waterford and to a berth in the 2015 state championship game. Orbe left the program to take over as head coach of the Mystic Schooners.

Player of the Decade: Michael Burrows, Waterford. Burrows was a unanimous choice among the panel. He struck out 15 in the 2017 Class M championship game, leading the Lancers to their (at the time) 10th state title. He finished 6-0 with a 0.38 earned run average his senior year with 98 strikeouts (315 for his career) and eight walks in 44 innings. He allowed but 17 hits, finished with 37 consecutive scoreless innings and pitched back-to-back no-hitters (he came one out away from a third).

The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Burrows in the 11th round of the 2018 draft. He signed with Pirates, although he had also earned a scholarship to UConn.

Program of the Decade: Waterford. No other program in the league had Waterford's overall accomplishments. The Lancers made the most state championship games (2010, 13, 17, 19), won two of them (2017, 19) and won the ECC Tournament twice (2013, 14). The Lancers also produced a Gatorade Player of the Year (Colin O'Keefe, 2010) and sent four players to the pros: O'Keefe, Burrows, Thomas Sutera and Nolan Long.

Individual Team of the Decade: Fitch, 2012. Not the most talented team. But the best story. The Falcons came from nowhere to win the Class L state title under coach Marc Peluso. Shawn Nadeau pitched a complete game in the finals against New Canaan. Chris Corum-Giles hit a two-run triple to give Fitch and lead and Al Jordan Johnson ended the game with a tumbling catch in foul territory. Not much was expected of the Falcons that season, which is why catcher Zach Wolfgang said after the championship game, "Honestly, it's too unreal right now. It hasn't really hit me yet that we're state champs. When it hits me later, I'll probably freak out."

Game of the Decade: June 9, 2015; Montville 7, St. Joseph 6. The Indians trailed 6-0 in the sixth inning in the Class L semifinals at Dodd Stadium. They were dead. Like Hoffa. Until they summoned the strength from the Chinese symbol for faith they wore on their old Houston Astro-like uniforms from that year.

It began with Jordan Zeppieri's two-run double to the gap in left-center to make it 6-2. A better grade of dead than five minutes earlier. Base hit here, walk there and it was 6-4 ... but nobody remained in the stands because it began raining at Dodd Stadium. Ah, but Montville loves rain. Its 2010 championship win over Waterford came after a 3-hour rain delay. Now all the Montville folks were on the concourse, lined two and three deep, reacting on every pitch.

They got it to 6-5 with the big fella, TT Bowens, at the plate. Sizzler up the gap. Tying run: in. Concourse now berserk. Except there was Orbe furiously waving his arms, as if landing a plane, but instead waving home pinch-runner Alex Ganoe, the potential winning run. Ganoe was out. But extra innings never felt so good.

And soon enough, after two intentional walks to load the bases in the bottom of the ninth, Isaiah Mack — "I Mack" to his friends — bounced a single up the middle and touched off an orange explosion. Montville 7, St. Joe's 6.

All-Decade team: We chose 10 in addition to Burrows. Ten of the 11 players either went Division I or were drafted. (Think about that one for a minute.) In no particular order:

TT Bowens, Montville: A serious candidate for Player of the Decade as well. Bowens is among the best players in Montville's estimable history, named a two-time all-stater, later leading Central Connecticut to a conference title. He hit more than .400 in his junior and senior seasons. Bowens was named The Day's 2015 Baseball Player of the Year with a school-record 47 hits, hit .465 with 29 runs scored, 31 RBI, 10 doubles, six triples and two home runs. Bowens also pitched to a 1.16 earned run average in seven games, including shutout relief in the state semifinals.

Aaron Hill, Fitch: Hill, who played at UConn, was the centerpiece of the 2012 championship team. He made the New Haven Register's All-State team in 2012 and 2013. During Fitch's championship season, he hit .345 with 21 RBI, 21 runs scored, 11 stolen bases and 11 walks.

Chase Livingston, East Lyme: Livingston, who played at Rhode Island, had the game-winning hit in the ECC title game as a senior, when he made Class L all-state. He hit .384 with a .564 on base percentage, 24 RBI and nine doubles. Livingston hit .408 during his career at East Lyme with 73 RBI.

Matt Spang, East Lyme: Spang led the Vikings to the state championship game as a senior, during which he was among the most versatile players in the league. He had 33 hits, 14 for extra bases, 33 runs scored, walked 14 times, stole six bases and went 6-2 as a pitcher with a 1.75 earned run average and 60 strikeouts.

Spang also mastered the concept of "when." He homered off Burrows in the regular season's biggest and most entertaining game, a 10-6 victory for East Lyme. He won two games pitching in the state tournament and during a stretch from his first at-bat in the state semifinals through his first at-bat in the championship game, reached base six straight times with five hits. Spang was also awarded the Sportsmanship Award from the Eastern Board umpires.

Colton Bender, Lyman Memorial: Maybe the most underrated player of the decade. Bender, a junior at Quinnipiac, hit .609 with 59 hits as a senior at Lyman. He finished with a four-year batting average of .461 and was named all-state twice. The Bulldogs made the state championship game his senior year.

Buddy Dewaine, Montville: Dewaine, who plays at Central Connecticut, was a three-time All-Area, three-time All-ECC and two-time all-state selection. He hit more than .400 twice and helped anchor Montville's pitching staff as it battled Waterford annually for the ECC Medium Division title. Dewaine originally signed with Div. I Maine.

Ken Turner, Ledyard: Turner, who pitches at the University of Hartford, was drafted last year in the 20th round by the Texas Rangers. He was The Day's 2019 Player of the Year, finishing his Ledyard career by making the Class M and GameTimeCT all-state teams. He was 5-1 his senior year, giving up four runs with an ERA of 0.73. He also struck out 73 and walked 11. The numbers would have been even better had a back injury not sidelined him for most of May.

Jesse Sutherland, Montville: Sutherland was the best player on perhaps Montville's best team — the 2010 state champion. As a junior, he hit .494 with 10 home runs, five triples, 26 stolen bases, 44 runs scored and 35 RBI. As a senior, he hit .419 with 43 runs scored, 36 hits and eight home runs. Sutherland was named All-State twice.

Colin O'Keefe, Waterford: O'Keefe, who played at Virginia Tech and later in the Angels' organization, was named the 2010 Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year, leading the Lancers to the state championship game. O'Keefe was summoned in relief during the Class M semifinals and struck out 11 of the 12 batters he faced. He pitched to a 1.95 earned run average his senior year and hit .416.

Willie Rios, St. Bernard: Rios, who had a 19-strikeout game against Lyman Memorial and 17 more against Waterford, was named The Day's 2014 All-Area Baseball Player of the Year. He finished with a 6-0 record and a 1.06 earned run average, averaging 14 strikeouts per start. He also hit .468 with five homers, including three in one game. Rios, who played at Maryland, was a 26th-round selection of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014.

Final note: There were some tough omissions here, most notably Nolan Long (Waterford, a member of the All-Decade basketball team, pitching in the Dodgers' organization), Garet Griffin (Plainfield, then Mitchell College) and Matt Malcom (East Lyme, now playing at Eastern Connecticut) among them. Also considered: Elijah Martinez (New London), Edgard Santiago (New London), C.J. Leindecker (East Lyme), Kevin Johnson (Waterford), Alex Petchark (Waterford), Jordan Hamler (Waterford), Nic Vlaun (NFA), Doug Domnarski (Stonington), Tre Gonzalez (Montville) and Jordan Kowalski (Ledyard).

This is the opinion of sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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