Conn. Baseball Academy pulls off rare double play
By Jason Guarente
(As originally published in the Journal Inquirer)
When Bob Hetu and Dan Kennedy formed the Team Connecticut Baseball Club, they wanted to help some of the
state's best young players compete on a national level.
Those players have taken it a step further. The best in Connecticut have shown they can be dominant against the best
from anywhere in the United States. That point was hammered home on Sunday. On fields hundreds of miles apart, the
16-under and 18-under divisions of the Connecticut Baseball Academy each claimed national championships.
Both went undefeated during their runs to the title. The 16-under team survived for a 10-6 victory against Florida in
Oklahoma City, Okla. The 18-under team topped Michigan in Cocoa, Fla., 10-2.
The vision of Hetu and Kennedy has been realized. In the six seasons since Team Connecticut was formed in 1994, the
program has produced four national crowns. This latest pair was the ultimate daily double.
"We work so hard to develop these kids," Kennedy said. "That has paid off and now the winning has come."
The 16-under team has two local players. Rockville High standout Andy Cravenho and South Windsor resident Rob
Cipolla were starters.
Cravenho filled his familiar lead off role for Team Connecticut and was a stalwart in center field, making several
important defensive plays. Cravenho also had two hits in the championship game.
"What makes Andy so special is his work ethic," said East Hartford's Hetu, an assistant coach for the 16-under team.
"You have to have the skills to along with that. They had some good kids at Rockville High. They had a great season
and for him to be a part of that speaks for itself."
Cipolla's story is one of persistence. When he was 13 and 14, Cipolla twice tried to make the Team Connecticut roster.
Twice he failed to make the cut. Cipolla finally broke through as a 15-year-old with a team that advanced to the national
tournament and placed sixth.
This year, the Kingswood-Oxford student reached the top.
"Rob really developed," said Pete Zabroski, a pitching coach for the Connecticut Baseball Academy. "He persevered,
got better through working hard and now he is a national champion. I saw him at the airport (Monday) and you couldn't
wipe the smile off his face."
Cipolla played third base and batted ninth for Team Connecticut. Hetu said Cipolla brought intangibles to the team.
"Rob became a leader for us," Hetu said. "He had a great tournament, played sound defense with clutch hitting. When
he got on base, he made things happen."
The secret to the success of the 16-under team is a grueling schedule. It played 45 games in a 51-day stretch mostly
against older competition.
"By playing all the older teams they are forced to get better," Hetu said. "We were playing against teams that have had
175 games together. That makes up for our shortage of games."
The 16-under team held tryouts in January and February. Over 100 prospects went out for the team before it was
paired down to-the 18 best from Connecticut and western Massachusetts.
One of the most lopsided losses of the season for the 16-under team came against its 18-under counterparts. After the
older Team Connecticut unit won handily, the younger kids were taught an important lesson.
"I told the kids that they have to understand that this team was showing them what they can do to their opponents,"
Zabroski said. "Instead of getting down about it, they fed off of it."
The 18-under team, which was coached by Kennedy, never lost its momentum. It cruised through the double elimination
national tournament without being seriously challenged. In eight victories, it outscored opponents 86-6. In the first game,
it scored 18 runs in the first inning.
"It was a dominant team," Kennedy said. "Every game they came out with fire in their eyes and the other teams were
beaten before they ever got onto the field."
Scott Dery and Wendell Anderson of East Hartford and Andy Musante of Somers were three of the key components
of the 18-under team that went 36-3. Dery and Musante were named to the All-America team.
Anderson was part of the 13-under squad that helped lay the foundation for the successful Team Connecticut program.
Anderson and South Windsor's Brett Burnham were part of the first national championship team in 1994.
"Wendell was a pioneer," Zabroski said. "He was part of that group that really set the table for the 15- and
16-year-olds They're the ones that got the college coaches to come watch our program."
Team Connecticut has quickly developed a national reputation. It has become one of the premier places for the best
high school talent in the state to get the attention of colleges. l he program is designed to develop players. Winning has
been a welcome bonus.
Nationally, no one is taking Team Connecticut lightly.
"This isn't unexpected," Hetu said. "We've done this for a couple of seasons and we know we can compete. When
Florida and California teams see us in their bracket, they - aren't too excited."
Winning two national championships in one day can have that effect.