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OVUHS baseball walks off with Division II championship

BURLINGTON — The Otter Valley Union High School baseball team on Monday night at the University of Vermont’s Centennial Field completed its run through the Division II tournament in dramatic fashion: Sophomore outfielder Nate Hudson lined a two-out, bases-loaded single in the bottom of the seventh inning to score senior Colby McKay, who led off the inning with an equally clutch double, and deliver the No. 3 Otters a 3-2 victory.
That moment was only necessary after No. 4 U-32 (13-6) staged its own dramatic rally in the top of the seventh. Down 2-1 to OV senior pitching ace Derek Aines and with the bases empty and two outs, the Raiders scratched out the tying run. 
Aines got two quick strikes on Owen Guthrie, but Guthrie got his bat on the ball and poked a high chopper to the right side that bounced just out of Aines’ reach; McKay at second base had no play. Guthrie stole second, and Connor Atchison laced a hard ground ball over the third-base bag that was fair by maybe an inch to drive in Guthrie.
But Aines, who tossed a complete-game five-hitter and struck out seven for his third win of the playoffs, said the 14-6 Otters — whose win on Monday was their seventh straight — were unfazed.
“All season long we believed. From the first day in the gym until right now, we believed,” Aines said. “We knew all season long we were going to come back and we were going to win. That’s the mindset we had all season long. We have heart.”
Coach Mike Howe said he was not surprised to see contributions from up and down the lineup: McKay is the No. 6 hitter; sophomore Patrick McKeighan, who in the third singled in the tying run and scored the go-ahead run, hits No. 8; sophomore Reilly Shannon, who singled in McKeighan, bats leadoff; and Hudson hits second. 
“That’s how it happened all year. We would continue to have different guys step up in big spots,” Howe said. “We came into the game with a lot of confidence knowing that one through nine we were going to put the bat on the ball and give us an opportunity.”
Most of the well-played game was a pitchers’ duel between Aines and Raider senior ace Jackson Root, both of whom mixed in effective breaking pitches with their fastballs. 
The only runs either pitcher allowed through five innings came in the third. The Raiders took the lead in the top of the inning, when Atchison singled and moved to third on a sacrifice and a wild pitch. U-32 DH Carter Pelzel hit a fly ball to right field just deep enough to score Atchison. 
The Otters scored two in the bottom of the inning and threatened for more. Root hit junior catcher Dan Allen with a pitch, and sophomore Jack Adams ran for him and stole second. McKeighan then dropped a single into left field to score Adams and stole second. 
Senior third baseman Dom McCullough bunted McKeighan to third, and Shannon poked a single up the middle to make it 2-1 when McKeighan scored. Shannon stole second, and he reached third when Hudson legged out an infield hit. Hudson stole second, and OV had runners on second and third with none out. 
But Root struck out sophomore No. 3 hitter Payson Williams (the winning pitcher in the quarterfinal playoff game) before walking sophomore cleanup batter Josh Beayon and then wriggling out of the jam by retiring Aines on a fly ball. 
Root then retired eight of the next nine batters and picked off the only batter who reached, while Aines likewise mowed down the Raiders — until there were two strikes and two out in the seventh and the Raiders staged their unlikely rally.
But then McKay drilled the first pitch he saw in the OV seventh deep into the left-center field gap. In a high school field it could have been a walk-off homer; in Centennial it hit the fence after two or three hops. Allen bunted McKay to third, and the Raiders chose to walk McKeighan and Dom McCullough to create a force at home. That brought up Shannon, who popped up Root’s first pitch for the second out. 
Then Hudson made no mistake with Root’s first pitch to him, lacing a clean single to right center. The Otters then buried him under a sea of blue shirts in the first-base coaching box. 
Howe said he and the Otters had confidence in Hudson. 
“We were in a good spot when he came up with a chance to win it for us,” Howe said. “He battles, he fights, and he finds a way to do it.”
Howe said he liked what he saw from the Otters right from the start, when they worked hard in early-morning and late-night practices in the gym, and then down the stretch, even during a 6-5 road loss to D-I No. 4 seed Hartford, when they added an extra championship ingredient. 
“I knew it was a team that was going to compete from day one in the gym, just the way we attacked things in the gym when there was still a foot of snow on the ground,” Howe said. “But we developed mental toughness late in the season. The Hartford game was key for us. We lost that game, but we fought and battled, and all playoffs long we battled and won tight games all the way. You create mental toughness, and I knew if we were in a spot we would give ourselves a opportunity to win.”
And now the Otters, most of whom played on 2016’s three-win team and some of whom played on 2015’s 1-14-1 squad, can, like OV’s 2013 group, call themselves champions. 
“It hasn’t sunk in yet, and I don’t think it has sunk in for them yet,” Howe said. “But, you know what, my first year being here was the seniors’ freshman year, so I’ve worked with them a lot. And I’m just so proud to be able to see them succeed this way after a couple of tough seasons, to be able to fight and not quit. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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