Coach Joe Lombardo and I sat in his Hartford High office the other day, talking about what was different this year, what helped his varsity baseball team make the postseason.
Definitely experience, Lombardo said; a number of players were seniors who played all four years.
Teamwork, too; the guys just seemed to click, he said.
And of course, he added, no one should underestimate the power of a little luck.
But if you ask me, the same attitude the players rode into the school's third state tournament in about 15 years was the very one the coach used to make sure the school's long-suffering baseball field was fixed.
As I've written before, this team without a field had plenty of reasons they could have pointed to had they come up short: long bus rides to and from games, no home field advantage, few, if any, friends and family to cheer them on.
To bring everyone up to speed, the construction company that for years used the school's baseball field as a staging area for equipment and left it a mess is finally fixing it.
It took a while — and speaking of excuses, a lot of them from just about everyone involved. In fact, it was hard to tell who was running away faster from this problem, the company that left the field a shambles or the city officials who watched from the sidelines.
But a few weeks ago, Coach Lombardo, Diggs Construction representative Joe DeSanti and I watched as a bulldozer tore up the once unplayable field and a line of dump trucks drove in fresh topsoil. It's since been hydro-seeded.
It doesn't get any better than this, Lombardo said then.
And then it did.
On Saturday, the team that beat the odds played a state tournament game against East Hartford at McKenna Field. There were a handful of supporters there for Hartford, including several teachers. But what the visitors lacked in numbers they made up for in Marisol Rivera, one of the player's girlfriends and a one-woman pep squad.
"Come on Javi," she yelled from the stands.
"You got it. You got it, Jomar."
The day before the game, co-captain Jomar Santiago told me he was so excited he couldn't sleep. He wasn't the only one. Coach Lombardo admitted he'd been entertaining a dream they'd be the winning team running onto the field after the game to celebrate.
But he tried to be realistic with his guys. They were the underdogs, he told them. But, he also reminded them — anything was possible if they wanted it bad enough.
And they did. They played like they had all season, with a lot of heart. Santiago tripled in the fifth.
"Keep fighting. Don't give up," Coach Lombardo told the team in the top of the sixth, when they were down by three.
But in the end, they came up short. East Hartford won, 7-2.
The team was disappointed; there were even a few tears.
But Coach wasn't done with them yet. "We'll be back next year," he told them. "And now we have our own field to practice and play on, so we'll be back even stronger."
The scoreboard may not have reflected it. But I'd call that a win.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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