BURLINGTON — After the No. 2 Vergennes Union High School baseball team made it through a rocky first inning in their Division II semifinal win over No. 6 Otter Valley, winning pitcher Charlie Stapleford described the Commodores as resilient.
Fortunately for the Commodores, that description proved to the prophetic.
In Saturday’s D-II final at the University of Vermont’s Centennial Field, VUHS, trailed, 3-0, after one inning against No. 13 Missisquoi — and ace pitcher Matt St. Amour.
St. Amour had struck out 10 and allowed six hits and no earned runs in a 1-0 loss at VUHS on May 3, and had already won three playoff games for the 8-12 T-Birds.
And through five innings on Saturday, St. Amour allowed only one Commodore baserunner: Junior second baseman Nick Richer reached in the first on a charitably scored infield hit.
But when VUHS junior Devin Hayes struck out the final T-Bird in the top of the seventh to finish his complete-game three-hitter, the 15-5 Commodores had won, 4-3, after scoring four times in the sixth inning.
And that word cropped up again, this time courtesy of junior center fielder Zach Ouellette, whose one-out single in the sixth triggered the decisive rally.
“We just have resilience. We never give up,” Ouellette said. “We knew we’d be in it.”
Shortstop Collin Curler, along with left fielder Colin Babcock, one of only two senior starters, also said he believed the Commodores would rally.
“We knew it was going to happen in one of the late innings,” said Curler, whose older brother Cam played on the 2007 team that is the only other VUHS baseball champion. “It was the most exciting thing ever. Words can’t even say how happy I am right now.”
The Commodores’ confidence came from their togetherness, he said.
“We were family,” Curler said. “We had each others’ backs the entire season. We were there for each other.”
VUHS coach George Ringer agreed the team is close-knit, and even took the point a step further: The athletes know each other well from other teams, classes and activities.
“There’s just such a cohesive group,” Ringer said. “They’re just good friends. They play every sport together. They know what each other is going to do. And they have a lot of faith in each other. They believe in themselves.”
That faith certainly helped after the first inning. Hayes walked leadoff hitter Caleb Lothian, and when Elijah Eaton bunted, Stapleton, catching on Saturday, tried for the force at second rather than the easier out at first. Both runners were safe. St. Amour then also tried to sacrifice, but bunted right to Hayes, who this time nabbed the lead runner at third.
Catcher Craig Laroche singled to right center, and Eaton scored from second, with St. Amour reaching third. Hayes then threw wildly trying to pick off St. Amour. St. Amour scored, and courtesy runner Alex Larose reached third. From there, he trotted home on Turner Ede’s sacrifice fly, and it was 3-0.
Richer reached on a slow roller to third that was bobbled and ruled a hit in the bottom of the inning, but that was it for the VUHS offense until the sixth. Junior first baseman Wade Steele, Ouellette, Curler and Richer all hit the ball hard, but had nothing to show for it.
However, despite St. Amour’s effective breaking ball, he was not racking up strikeouts the way he did at VUHS on May 3, and finished with five.
VUHS knew he had pitched back-to-back complete games on three days’ rest, and was trying to do so again. The Commodores started taking the first pitch and calling for time during at-bats in an effort to disrupt his rhythm, and possibly those tactics took a toll.
“We thought he’d be tired by the end, and it looked like it, and we took advantage, and we got some hits,” Hayes said.
But before the Commodores could rally, they also had to stay within striking distance. Hayes (seven innings, five Ks, three walks) did his job, with some defensive help.
In the third, Lothian singled and reached third on a stolen base and Stapleford’s throwing error. But Steele made a nice catch on a foul ball, St. Amour lined to Curler, and then Stapleford atoned for his miscue by picking Lothian off third. MVU also got two runners on in the sixth with two out on a Laroche infield hit and a walk to Ede, but Hayes got Josh Laroche to ground out to Curler.
That set the stage for the VUHS rally. Ouellette started it with a solid single to right field, the Commodores’ first clean hit. Ringer said he sensed something at that point.
“That was huge,” Ringer said. “For some reason you could feel the momentum swing with that.”
Babcock then drew a walk from the tiring St. Amour, and Richer followed with a single to right that got past the right fielder, allowing Ouellette to score and putting Commodores on second and third. St. Amour got Curler on a grounder to the mound, but Hayes ripped a single to left to score Babcock. It was hit so hard, however, that Ringer held pinchrunner Tommy Lee Hodsden at third base.
Next, Stapleford hit a 10-foot dribbler fielded by the catcher. Stapleford beat the throw while Hodsden made a smart read on the ball, which was hit near the third-base line: Hodsden realized he could get past the catcher without being tagged and scored on the play.
Sophomore third baseman Timmy Shea was next, and he hit a soft ground ball between the first and second basemen. Shea beat the throw while Hayes made another great baserunning play: He never stopped running from second base and scored standing up. Suddenly, VUHS led, 4-3, and the noisy VUHS fans erupted.
In the seventh, Hayes got a fly ball to Ouellette and a grounder to Curler before ending the game in style with a strikeout.
“Luckily we had the big inning at the end,” Hayes said. “It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had. I can’t describe it.”
Two members of the team, Babcock and Shea, won a D-II hockey title playing for the Middlebury Union hockey team. But five members of the VUHS baseball team — Curler, Hayes, Ouellette, Stapleford and senior Nick Paquin (the team’s only other senior beside Will Vaughn) — remembered the heartbreak of losing this winter’s D-II basketball final.
That loss made Saturday’s result all the sweeter, especially for the seniors.
“It’s my last year,” Curler said, “and we knew we had to get something we didn’t get in basketball.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]