Commodore nine falls in Division III final

BURLINGTON — Five years ago, there was no Vergennes Union High School varsity baseball program, just two years after VUHS won the 2012 Division II title.
This season the Commodores went 14-6, won the Lake Division championship despite being one of the two smallest schools in the league, and steamrolled their first three D-III playoff foes by a collective score of 26-3.
But the program’s first state title since 2012 remained elusive despite the reborn program’s success this spring.
On Saturday DIII final at Centennial Field in Burlington, top seeded White River Valley completed an undefeated season by topping the No. 3 Commodores, 9-5, in a back-and-forth contest.
The 18-0 Wildcats took a 4-0 lead after two innings, saw VUHS fight back with a five-run fourth, but then answered with a decisive four-run fifth inning on the way to their victory.
Uncharacteristically, the Commodores surrendered three unearned runs, one in the first and two in the fifth. Coach Dwight Burkett acknowledged both White River’s quality and his team’s off day in the field.
“They hit the ball. They came to play. I’m not taking anything away from White River. They’re a great team, and they played a great game of baseball today,” Burkett said. “We did not have our best defensive game today.”
At the same time Burkett, an assistant when the Commodores won titles in 2007 and 2012 and the architect of the program’s revival, can offer the perspective that comes from being a JV coach in 2014.
“The program’s looking up,” he said. “Just getting here was a great accomplishment.”
White River served notice quickly it came to play with three runs, two earned, in the first. George Carr singled off VUHS starter Tucker Stearns to lead off the inning and stole second. Carr scored on Zeb Perrault’s two-out single, and Stearns walked Timber Russell to put runners on first and second.
Jacob Barry singled in Perrault, and Russell followed him home after he headed to third on a poor throw from the outfield and the Commodores threw the ball away trying to nab him advancing.
White River added another run on the second. Stearns walked Dom Craven, and No. 9 hitter Tracy Austin reached on a bunt single. Craven scored when Carter Stratton hit into a fielder’s choice, and Austin scored from second when the throw to first to try to turn a double play forced first-baseman Cooper O’Brien to the ground while stretching for the ball.
Stearns settled down to retire seven of the next eight batters through the end of the fourth inning.
VUHS scored all of its runs in the fourth. With one out Stearns legged out an infield hit and raced to third on an overthrow. Jeffrey Stearns walked, and both runners scored when Aidan Gardner pounded a double to right center, his second hit of the game.
Starting pitcher Logan Martin then walked Barret Barrows, and Robbie Bicknell bunted. The catcher threw the ball away trying to nab Bicknell at first, allowing Gardner to score and putting Barrows and Bicknell on third and second, respectively.
Ira White then singled in Barrows and ended Martin’s day, bringing in Stratton. Jake Russell then beat out an infield hit, scoring Bicknell with the fifth run of the inning. Stratton then got the final two outs, and he earned the pitching win by allowing only a sixth-inning walk to Bicknell and a lead-off single to O’Brien in the seventh the rest of the way.
Things looked promising for the Commodores at that point, however.
“We made a good run. We put it together a little bit,” Burkett said.
But the Wildcats took charge in the fifth, with some help from the Commodores and a couple of softly hit singles. Stratton led off by reaching on a dropped fly ball, and he scored to tie the game when Jake Hewitt scorched a triple to right center. After Perrault singled Hewitt home to make it 6-5 Wildcats, Burkett summoned Jake Muzzy to the mound. Muzzy had tossed a five-inning perfect game four days before and a shutout in the first round.
Muzzy struck out the first batter he faced, walked Barry, and then struck out the next hitter. But Craven reached on a dribbler to load the bases, and Austin blooped a single into no-man’s land in short right field to score two runs and make it 8-5.
In the sixth another infield hit and bloop single factored into the final White River run. Stratton then shut the door in the seventh, getting a ground out and then striking out the final two batters after O’Brien’s lead-off single.
Despite the setback, Burkett said he sees a bright future for VUHS baseball. White and O’Brien were the only seniors who took the field for VUHS on Saturday, and only three juniors saw action: Jeffrey Stearns, Gardner and Bicknell. The two co-No. 1s on the pitching staff, Tucker Stearns and Muzzy, are sophomores, and Burkett said there are younger players ready to step in.
“We’ll be back here next year,” Burkett said. “I’m putting that out there right now.”   
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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