When Montville meets Seymour for the Class M state baseball championship 12:30 p.m. today at Bristol's Muzzy Field, two teams from opposite ends of the state will provide near mirror images of each other.
Consider the similarities:
Both teams labored through up-and-down regular seasons with Montville (12-8) landing the 20th seed in Class M and Seymour (11-9) the 22nd seed.
Both finished .500 in their divisions: Montville 5-5 in the ECC Medium and Seymour 6-6 in the Naugatuck Valley League.
Both recently defeated Waterford in a Class M title game: Montville, 6-4, over the Lancers last year and Seymour, 2-0, in 2007.
Both disposed of league rivals in the semis: Montville 12-1 over Stonington and Seymour 4-0 over Wolcott.
Both have recently fielded more powerful teams than their current squad. Montville was viewed by many as stronger in previous title years (2006 and 2010). In 2008, Seymour was 23-0, including 14 shutouts and a Class M quarterfinal win over Montville, until losing in the semis.
Both coaches silenced critics stating they couldn't win "the big one" after Seymours Bob Kelo won in 2007 in his sixth try in the finals, and Montville's Phil Orbe in 2006 in his fourth try.
And both coaches have subscribed to a one-man pitching rotation in state play at times. Last year, Orbe leaned on graduated senior Justin Brachas for four starts in the Indians' five-game run. This season, Kelo used ace Adam Merritt for seven innings in a 3-1 quarterfinal win and then three days later June 7 in a 4-0 semifinal win over Wolcott.
Brachas hurled 23 innings in 11 days to win four games last year in a performance Orbe called "one of the most outstanding I've ever had the pleasure of watching."
"The coaching staff thought he would give us the best chance to win certain matchups," Orbe said. "He also is a workout fanatic. We knew he would between starts get himself physically ready. Throughout the entire tournament we monitored him very closely and communicated with him and his family. He carried us."
Orbe has taken a more traditional approach, using two juniors of similar ability, Tre Gonzalez and Corey Wilcox, in this post-season. It's Gonzalez's turn Saturday. Montville expects to see Merritt, a right-handed curveball specialist who wasn't spectacular record-wise in the regular season (3-2 record) but has struck out 71 batters in 60 innings.
"Adam couldn't control his curveball early in the season," Kelo said. "Now he's throwing it for strikes at any time in the count. It's become his out pitch."
Aside from Merritt's strikeout totals, Seymour's statistics won't top any MaxPrep national, state or even conference lists. Seymour holds a team batting average around .290, less than average for high school. Joe Kuzia leads the Wildcats with four home runs, but he is batting just. 290. Shortstop Phil Wilhelmy (.395) was Seymour's lone All-State player.
Montville also had just one All-State pick, another similarity between both teams. Junior pitcher-outfielder Corey Wilcox batted around .400 to lead a Montville offense that sputtered in the regular season, but has come alive with two double-digit run outputs in the states.
The middle of the order, shortstop Casey Zalagens (triple, double, four RBI), second baseman Tyler Contillo (2-for-2, two RBI) and Max Hart (triple, single, three RBI) buried Stonington in the semis.
Even though Montville failed to qualify for the eight-time ECC Tournament, Orbe envisioned a post-season run. And Seymour, with its recent championship pedigree, is not stunned to be here. Perhaps the expectation of greatness is the top similarity between the two programs.
"As long as you get eight wins, you're going to get in," he said. "[Former Waterford standout coach Jack O'Keefe and I didn't see eye to eye on a lot, but one of things I earned from him is you just need eight to get in, then you roll [the pitchers] out and see what happens."
One of the few differences between Seymour and Montville was 2010. Montville won a state title, while Seymour finished 6-14.
"Being there last year, it makes you feel more comfortable," Orbe said. "That type experience in a big game is something you can't buy."