LEDYARD — Jamie Bruce, manager of the Ledyard-Pawcatuck American Legion baseball team, has faced many challenges to his goal of fielding a competitive team during what has turned into an 0-18 season with six games to go on its Zone VI schedule.
None of those challenges include the players, about 10, who remain active on his roster. He applauds them after each game for being the rare few among LP's territory of Ledyard, Stonington, North Stonington and Montville, who are participating.
Tri-Town of the Thompson-Putnam-Woodstock area, a first-place team in Zone VI North with a 13-4 record, defeated LP, 4-1, Sunday. It was a 2-0 game when Ledyard hurler Tyler Perkins, the team's ace, had to leave the game after five innings because of pitch-count issues.
"I'm not taking anything away from the kids who are showing up," said Bruce, in his third season as LP Seniors (19-and-under) coach after leading LP's juniors (17-and-under) to regular state tournament appearances. "They are playing hard and being competitive. We're just struggling with a lot of issues."
LP has struggled to post winning records historically in Zone VI, drawing from a relatively small talent pool. The local team has posted winning records in the past under former coach George Francis, parlaying the talents of college talent like Stonington's Doug Domnarski (Class of 2012), among others.
Recently, falling in line with a national and statewide trend of players opting to showcase their talents at the AAU level, Legion interest has waned. New London, long a state powerhouse, did not have a team for the first time in ages this year.
"Somewhere along the line, AAU ball gained an image of being more attractive than Legion summer baseball," Bruce said. "Think about the potential of Ledyard-Pawcatuck. Now, we can draw from Ledyard, Stonington, Montville and Wheeler. If we took some of the top five kids from each school, we'd be unstoppable."
Instead, no Stonington High player elected to join the LP Legion Seniors team, although three players who live in Stonington, who attend Grasso Tech, play. Wheeler pitching ace Bowen Baker opted for AAU showcases.
No Montville High players of note tried out — Montville once fielded a quality Legion team before disbanding three years ago. Even Ledyard High, which was an outstanding regular-season team with a 17-3 record before fizzling in the postseason this year, did not see All-State pitchers Ken Turner or Cade Walters go to Legion ball.
Bruce, a North Stonington resident, said he talked to each high school team in LP's territory after selected games this season to promote Legion baseball. UConn coach Jim Penders is on the record endorsing Legion ball as the preferred summer baseball option for high school players. Troy Stefanski of North Stonington, who graduated from UConn in 2018 after an outstanding career, made his mark with LP Legion as a former Zone VI MVP.
But it's still a challenge to attract teenagers to playing five days a week for five straight summer weeks for various reasons, Bruce said. Even Bruce's son, Ledyard All-ECC catcher Weston Bruce, only plays sparingly for LP, citing mental fatigue with catching every game.
"That's a tough one, but he's exhausted," Bruce said. "Why do I keep coaching? I'm not going to quit on these kids in the dugout. But it's getting tough with the lack of support."
Ledyard High coach Scott Chiasson is head coach of the AAU Connecticut Hurricanes. Many Stonington High players are on the Connie Mack team (Stonington-Westerly combined) coached by Nate Cahoone, son of Stonington coach Bob Cahoone. Connie Mack plays just two games per week.
"I hear that AAU exposes kids to college and pro scouts more than Legion," Bruce said. "Tyler Perkins participated in a Legion-sponsored Futures showcase in front of 20 scouts last week. The story of Troy Stefanski tearing the cover off the ball in Legion and eventually playing and starting at UConn shows you succeed from here. Then there's the cost of $1,500 or more for AAU to a couple of hundred in Legion. It's sad more kids are staying away from Legion baseball."
Perkins, Ledyard's No. 3 pitcher in high school, allowed just two hits in five innings in the LP loss Sunday.
Tri-Town's Mason Barber doubled twice and drove in two runs. Luke Mathewson, a Woodstock All-Stater, had two hits and an RBI. Kobe Akana, the son of Tri-Town coach Jason Akana, who once led NCAA Division III in batting at Westfield State in the early '90s, pitched six innings of one run ball.
Ethan Jarry, one of five post-graduate players, had two hits for LP. Nate Marceau of Pawcatuck (Grasso Tech) walked with the bases full in the sixth to account for the only run. Generating offense has been LP's problem in the wooden-bat league.
"We have five kids who didn't play as college freshmen who wanted to use their last year to play," Bruce said. "It's unfortunate that the love of playing with your town friends and competing for area and state championships is being replaced by the lure of AAU ball."