MONTPELIER — The Mount Abraham Union High School baseball team started 2010 without its No. 1 pitcher, the 2009 Metro Conference Player of the Year, and another three-year starter, also the team’s 3-4-5 hitters: They were among the six seniors who graduated from the 2009 squad that won the Metro title and helped Mount Abe reach the Division II final for the fourth straight year.
And when the Eagles didn’t score a run in three scrimmages during a preseason trip to Florida, longtime Mount Abe coach Jeff Stetson admitted even he was not sure about his team’s prospects.
“I didn’t come back thinking we were going to be a No. 1 seed,” Stetson said. “I was going, ‘We’re going to have to scratch for every run we get this year.’”
Then the Eagles burst out of the gates with a 7-0 record and finished the regular season at 11-5, good enough for that No. 1 seed.
Three playoff victories put them in Monday’s D-II state championship game for the fifth straight year and seventh time since 2001. Waiting for them at the Montpelier Recreation Park was No. 3 Burr & Burton (12-8), which had flattened three postseason foes by a collective score of 34-1 and owned a 12-1 record against D-II opponents.
On Monday, the Eagles scratched out one more run than the Bulldogs — junior Ethan Heffernan’s two-strike squeeze bunt plated senior Sam Lieberman with the winning score in the bottom of the ninth — to win, 6-5, and claim the program’s fifth D-II title in 10 years and third in the past five.
Nobody in Vermont could have been happier than Lieberman, whose two seventh-inning errors at third base helped the Bulldogs score four two-out runs to erase a 4-1 Eagle lead.
But Eagle senior Ryan Siegle singled in classmate Adam Pouliot in the bottom of the seventh to make it 5-5 and force extra innings and allow Lieberman a shot at redemption.
Two innings later, Lieberman hit a slow roller to third and hustled to force a throw that pulled first baseman Jake Oliver just off the bag. Losing pitcher T.J. Oliver then uncorked two wild pitches, moving Lieberman to third base and setting up Heffernan’s bunt. Lieberman broke quickly off third and slid home safely easily before celebrating with his jubilant teammates.
“I’ve never felt anything like that before,” Lieberman said. “Just thank God we were on top, because if we lost I would have been in big trouble. It was just an amazing game. It was unbelievable. I just don’t have any more words for it. It was just insane.”
But to listen to the Eagles, their win and the successful season were bigger than the contributions or the struggles of any one player.
Senior winning pitcher Mickey O’Connor (who threw 2.1 innings in relief of starter Shawn Marcelle, allowing one hit and an unearned run) said the Eagles’ mindset played the central role.
“We just have really great guys, a lot of seniors, a lot of maturity,” O’Connor said. “It’s not something you can coach. It’s just something in their minds. Everyone was focused.”
O’Connor said the Eagles also bought into Stetson’s philosophy of focusing on the task at hand and letting the big picture sort itself out.
“(It’s) coaching, dedication, one pitch, one at-bat, one out at a time, just playing it that way and not looking too far ahead, and not psyching ourselves out,” he said.
Lieberman said the Eagles relied on work ethic, Stetson and assistant coach Bill Leggett.
“(It was) lots of hard work and dedication. I’ve got to thank Coach Stetson and Leggs,” Lieberman said. “I wouldn’t want to play under anybody else.”
Stetson threw the bouquets back.
“They really enjoy the hard work involved with making things go when things aren’t going so well. And we’ve had a great group of guys and a great group of seniors who have kept everybody going in the right direction,” Stetson said.
On Monday, a little luck didn’t hurt, either.
Pitcher Eddie Lewicki started the game for Burr & Burton and struggled with his control. Marcelle singled to lead off the Eagle first. Pouliot forced Marcelle at second with a grounder. Pouliot stole second and scored when Lieberman singled through the right side.
Walks to Siegle and senior Steve Patterson loaded the bases, but Lieberman was forced at home on a Heffernan squeeze bunt for the second out. Lewicki struck out O’Connor, but the pitch got past catcher Mike Marino, allowing O’Connor to reach and scoring Siegle. Patterson trotted home when senior Shawn Thurber walked.
In the second, Pouliot walked, moved to third on a wild pitch and another passed ball, and scored on Lieberman’s grounder to third.
When Siegle singled, Burr & Burton coach Adam Provost called T.J. Oliver to the mound. Oliver (6.2 innings, two hits, nine Ks, two walks, three hit batsmen) shut the Eagles down until the seventh.
Meanwhile, Marcelle (6.2 innings, two earned runs, three walks, four hit batters, eight Ks), also struggled with his control, but struck out batters with two on to end the first and with the bases loaded to end the second, and held the Bulldogs to one-for-seven with runners in scoring position and stranded eight runners through four innings The exception came in the third: Marcelle hit Alex Miskovsky with a pitch, and Jake Oliver doubled to make it 4-1.
Marcelle settled down to strike out the side in the fifth and get the side 1-2-3 in the sixth. Pouliot at short, Andrew Doucette at second, Lieberman at third, Patterson in right field and Heffernan in center all made plays.
Then came the seventh, with Marcelle having 28 pitches left before the mandatory 120-pitch limit. The Eagle ace retired T.J. Oliver, but Marino worked a nine-pitch walk. After Marcelle fanned Lewicki, Miskovsky singled.
Marcelle got an 0-2 count on Joel Zoufaly as the Mount Abe fans roared. But Zoufaly hit a slow roller to Lieberman that he beat out for a hit, scoring Marino and putting runners on first and second.
Stetson then called for O’Connor, who got Jake Oliver to ground to Lieberman right on third base. But Lieberman bobbled a tricky hop, and the bases were loaded. Connor Stewart next hit a slow grounder to Lieberman for a run-scoring hit, and Lieberman ill-advisedly tried to get the out at first and threw wildly. Two more runners scored to give the Bulldogs the lead.
But O’Connor was unfazed. In the past when things haven’t gone well, he admitted he has lost his poise. On Monday, he just kept throwing strikes. He credited the coaches and the captains — Marcelle, and, yes, Lieberman — for helping him overcome that issue.
“At the beginning of the year I did a really poor job of keeping my composure. And Stets sat me down and the captains sat me down and talked to me,” O’Connor said. “And ever since then I’ve been really focused on keeping it together, and it’s really helped, and I have Stets and the captains to thank.”
Finally, Lieberman led off the Eagle ninth.
“I was just desperate to get on base. I felt like my life depended on it,” he said.
Two batters later, Heffernan came up. Even when he missed the first bunt attempt and fell behind in the count, Stetson gave him the sign.
“I was nervous, but I knew I could lay it down,” Heffernan said. “So I just went out there, and he threw me the pitch, and I got it down. Game over, we win.”
Even though, he said, back in April not everyone thought they would.
“A lot of people did doubt us to begin with, and then we came out and we went 7-0,” Heffernan said. “We lost a few, but then we came back and played awesome ball, and it just goes to show how hard work pays off.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.