Hickory A.C. erased an early 6-0 deficit, rallying to defeat Orem’s Diner 11-7 to win the Wilton Parks and Recreation Department’s 2017 National League softball championship last Thursday.
The win was Hickory A.C.’s first title in its 23 years in the league and capped off an undefeated run through the playoffs.
It was the fourth time Hickory A.C. had played in the finals. The team reached the finals in its first two seasons (1995 and 1996) and lost, and then waited 18 years to make it back, in 2014, only to fall short again.
“Most years we’ve been one of the strongest teams in the league, but always came up short in the playoffs — until this year,” said manager Don Juricic.
The mere thought of Hickory A.C. winning a championship seemed highly unlikely just last year, when the team finished 7-11, by far its worst season ever. The team looked old and ragged and no longer was competitive. There was discussion about pulling the plug on the franchise at the end of the season.
Fortunately, third baseman Tom Viggiano answered the call. Viggiano recruited two young, athletic and very talented players (Zach Socci and Connor Garrity) to the squad midway through the 2016 season. When free agent Yoshi Nobumoto joined the team for the 2017 season, the franchise was fully revitalized.
After receiving a first-round bye, second-seeded Hickory A.C. opened the playoffs on Sept. 7 with a 17-9 win over third-seeded Wilton Jewelers. With the win, Hickory A.C. advanced to the winners’ bracket final on Sept. 21 to meet fourth-seeded Orem’s Diner, which had advanced after a 16-4 mercy-rule thumping of top-seeded Mercer Builders.
Hickory A.C. defeated Orem’s Diner 10-4 to advance to the league championship. Joe Favarolo, Sean Lyon and Chris Perry led the way with three hits apiece.
After Orem’s Diner rallied for eight runs in the final inning of the losers’ bracket final to dispose of Mercer Builders for a second time, 17-14, Hickory A.C. and Orem’s Diner were set to meet for the league championship.
On Sept. 28, in the title game, Orem’s Diner raced to a 6-0 second-inning lead. In the bottom of the second inning, Hickory A.C. began its comeback with singles by Favarolo and Craig Knutson. However, Hickory A.C.’s rally was delayed when suddenly the field lights went out. Rather than wait 30 minutes on a cool evening for the lights to re-set, both teams agreed to continue the game exactly where it left off the following Thursday.
A week later, on Oct. 5, Matt McMahon continued the rally with a one-out single to load the bases. Juricic’s two-run single to left center cut the lead to 6-2. With two outs, Nobumoto blasted a long, three-run home run over the right-field fence to make it 6-5.
After a scoreless third inning, Orem’s Diner increased its lead to 7-5 in the top of the fourth inning. Hickory A.C. made it 7-6 in the bottom of the fourth on a single by Socci, a double by Nobumoto and a sacrifice fly by Garrity.
Hickory A.C.’s winning rally began in the bottom of the fifth inning, the same way it began in the second inning — with singles by Favarolo and Knutson. After Christian Eidt’s fly ball to right center moved pinch runner Sean Lyon to third base, McMahon plated Lyon with a sacrifice fly to right field to tie the game at 7-7.
Juricic’s two-out double to right field scored Knutson, giving Hickory A.C. its first lead of the game at 8-7. Socci singled to make it 9-7. After a Nobumoto single, Perry provided two key insurance runs with a long double to right center, increasing the lead to 11-7.
Juricic’s pitching and a flawless team defensive effort shut down the potent Orem’s Diner offense over the final two innings. After Hickory A.C. left fielder Garrity snared a line drive for the final out, the near quarter-century championship drought for Hickory A.C. was over.
Hickory A.C. second baseman Ted Riegel, the starting right fielder on Wilton High School’s first FCIAC championship baseball team in 1977, led the procession to the post-game celebration, where longtime Hickory A.C. manager Don Juricic was ambushed with a champagne bath.
Hickory A.C. players had finally gotten the monkey off their backs.
Notes: Other key players during the 2017 season were Rob Willock and Chris McTague. The Hickory A.C. 2017 roster also included John Calabro, Steve Gagnon, Mike Galardi, Dave Koch, Dom Musilli, Chris Moya, Ralph Sanna, Mike Wallace and Ralph B.
The championship team also recognizes many key former Hickory A.C. players over the years, including Justin Borglum, Thad Borglum, Jim Clancy, Don Gillham, Daryl Juricic, Frank Kunst, Glenn Laudenslager, Steve Lunsford, Doug Marino, Kurt Marut, Rob Neumann, Mike O’Connor, Ryan Price, Walter Rescorla, Pete Rubsam, Jimmy Sexton and John Tanner.