CASTLETON — With two losses in three outings, the Addison County American Legion baseball team bowed out of this past weekend’s double-elimination Vermont Legion championship tournament at Castleton State College.
AC, the Northern Division’s No. 4 seed, rallied on Saturday for a win in its second game, 9-6, over Southern No. 3 Lakes Region, but that victory was bookended by an opening loss on Friday to Southern No. 1 Bennington, 8-0, and in a Sunday elimination contest to Northern No. 1 Essex, 4-1.
Despite his young team’s ouster, Coach Mike Estey said both he and the players looked back at the tournament — and the season — in a positive light.
To start with, AC prevailed in a tournament game for the first time since its state championship in 2008, despite having only six players return from last summer’s veteran-laden squad.
“We were almost feeling we could beat anyone in the tournament,” Estey said. “And we did win a game, which we hadn’t done in the past two years.”
And with more than half the starting lineup new, and with the three pitchers who started this past weekend all in their first year of Legion ball, expectations were uncertain entering the season. Then AC lost its first four games before catching fire to earn one of the four Northern playoff spots with a 9-5 league mark; the team finished at 11-8 overall including the tourney.
“I thing going in, honestly, we thought we would have a hard time getting into the tournament,” Estey said. “And then we did well in the season, had an eight-game winning streak at one time.”
In the opener against then undefeated Bennington, Estey said losing pitcher Tommy Nelson deserved a better fate, as a couple long fly balls dropped in that probably could have been caught, helping Bennington to a 2-0 lead. AC then failed to convert an early squeeze bunt that could have cut the lead in half.
But overall, AC could not get the bats going against Bennington’s Tyler Kunzmann, who tossed seven innings and allowed only a third-inning single by Jackson Alexander.
On Saturday, AC got off to a rocky start against Lake Region, which took a 6-2 lead against starter Charlie Stapleford after two innings, thanks in part to some defensive miscues that Estey said were not typical for his team.
But after that, both AC in the field and Stapleford on the mound settled in. Stapleford went eight innings and struck out 11, allowing only six hits, three after the second inning. Devin Hayes earned a save with a scoreless ninth.
Estey said he was thrilled with Stapleford’s poise after the rocky start.
“We didn’t play well early against them, but Charlie did a great job,” he said. “It was a real nice step for him. He kept his composure. He was tough after the first two innings.”
Stapleford and Nate Tabor also drilled three hits apiece to lead AC’s 14-hit offensive outburst. By the fifth, it was 6-6, and AC snapped the tie with a run in the sixth: Marshall Hastings singled, Tabor walked, Alexander bunted his way on to load the bases, and Hayes drove in the run with a fielder’s choice.
AC added two insurance runs in the eighth on hits by Alexander, Stapleford, Dylan Bresnick and Logan Williams.
On Sunday, Essex hurler Sam Spencer outdueled Hayes as AC’s season ended with the 4-1 setback. Hayes went nine innings, allowing eight hits and two walks, striking out five, while Spencer tossed a four-hitter and fanned six.
“Devin threw a great game for us,” Estey said.
Hayes did not allow a baserunner until the fifth, when a Nick Salerno single and doubles by Ted Andrews and Steve Jurkiewicz made it 2-0.
AC made it 2-1 in the sixth, when a Nelson single plated Hayes, who had two of AC’s four hits. But Essex added solo runs in the sixth (unearned) and the eighth to pull away.
Estey said AC turned three double plays vs. Essex, and the players came away from the tournament believing in their abilities.
“We did finish on a positive note. The kids felt good after the game,” he said. “Overall, it was a good season.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]