Sports

Tiger baseball clinches D-II title in tense game vs. Eagles

JOYOUS MEMBERS OF the newly minted D-II champion MUHS baseball team run to celebrate with their friends, family members and fans in the Centennial Field stands after their postgame huddle. The Tigers won the tense, extra-inning game in dramatic and unusual fashion. Most seniors on the team had been playing together since Little League and were thrilled to win their school’s first baseball title. Independent photo/Andy Kirkaldy

BURLINGTON —  It could be said two baseball teams won Saturday night’s Division II high school baseball final between No. 6 Mount Abraham and No. 8 Middlebury, which was played at UVM’s Centennial Field.

But the problem for the Eagles, who apparently scored the winning run on a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the seventh inning, is that in baseball touching all the bases is more than a run-of-the-mill cliché. 

MOUNT ABE BASEBALL supporters turned out in force at Centennial Field on Saturday night to support their team in the Division II baseball final.
Independent photo/Andy Kirkaldy

It’s required by the rules to touch the bases when taking a trip around them. “Touch ’em all,” as they say.

The situation: With the bases full of Eagles, Tiger freshman relief pitcher Gabe Velez just missed the strike zone with ball four. Eagle courtesy runner Connor Peck trotted home from third base with the run that looked to give Mount Abe a 5-4 win and the title.

But the batter did not immediately run to first base. He joined the joyful mob of teammates that greeted Peck, as did, according to at least two people who watched the replay, his other teammates on the basepaths. All were understandably caught up in the excitement of a championship. 

Then a hush fell as the hundreds of Eagle and Tiger fans realized the four umpires were gathered in a knot between home plate and the mound. And the players were standing motionless in front of their dugouts. 

After about 30 agonizing seconds in what had already been a tense game with two lead changes, the crew chief raised his right fist — the Eagle run was disallowed, and the innings was over.

Cheers rang out among the fans behind the Tiger dugout, and groans of disbelief came from the first-base side. 

Regardless of the clashing emotions, there was more baseball to play. The game was going to the eighth inning tied at 4-4.

“At first, it was like, it’s over,” said Tiger senior tri-captain Cole Warren. “When (the umpires) got talking, we were like, hey, he never went to first. At the end of the day he was called out … It gave us all the momentum in the world. We knew that the baseball gods had given us another chance, and we weren’t going to screw it up this time.”

Coach Tim Paquette said that’s what he told the Tigers, who had won 11 of 12 games after a 1-7 start to reach the final, including two nail-biting quarterfinal and semifinal road victories over the Nos. 1 and 4 seeds. 

THE MOUNT ABE baseball team talked it over before the bottom of the eighth inning of Saturday’s D-II final, but the Eagles’ two-run rally against MUHS came up one run short.
Independent photo/Andy Kirkaldy

“I told them to go play. The baseball gods were on our side, and now it’s time to go put up a crooked number so we can take it all home,” he said. “They listened to me.”

In the top of the eighth, the heart of the Tiger order came up against Eagle freshman reliever Stefan Johnson, who had pitched well in the Eagles’ semifinal win at No. 3 Lyndon. Senior catcher Carter Paquette singled to lead off, and senior third baseman Tim Whitney drew a walk. With one out, senior Tucker Morter, who started as pitcher for MUHS and tossed the first 6.2 innings, laced a single up the middle to score Carter Paquette and make it 5-4.

Velez walked to load the bases, and senior Tiger first baseman Ethan Sweet stroked a two-run single up the middle to make it 7-4. Riley Disorda walked to reload the bases, but Johnson got the next two batters to ground to Eagle freshman third baseman Abe Ready, who threw home to force the runners and give the Eagles a chance to rally in their at-bat.

Like the Tigers, the Eagles are also a resilient bunch who bounced back from a 1-3 start to finish the regular season at 10-6. Other than their one-run quarterfinal win at Lyndon they had advanced to Centennial without much fuss.

And they had already wiped out two Tiger leads during the game, and they came out swinging against Velez in the bottom of the eighth. With one out, Eagle junior center fielder Tyler White and sophomore second baseman Brody Barnard both lined singles. 

Velez got sophomore Evan Corrigan to ground out, but the runners advanced to second and third. A wild pitch scored White  to make it 7-5, and Ready walked and stole second. That meant runners on second and third for Cam Castillo, who threw the first seven innings and is the Eagle cleanup hitter. With two strikes on him, Castillo delivered a line single to left hit so hard it could only score one run. The Tiger lead was down to 7-6. 

Peck pinch-ran and stole second, putting two runners in scoring position for senior Tanner Castillo. Castillo poked a shot to right center that looked like it had a chance, but speedy Tiger junior center fielder Alex Sperry raced over. The ball, a 7-6 victory, and a D-II title landed safely in his glove. 

THE MUHS BASEBALL team bowed to their fans after winning the Division II baseball title, the program’s first in the sport, at Centennial Field on Saturday night.
Independent photo/Andy Kirkaldy

That late drama just capped a tension-filled game between two teams that split regular-season games, each winning on their home turf. Both started their aces in the final.

The Tigers touched up Cam Castillo for a 2-0 lead in the first inning. Castillo hit Warren with a pitch, and balked him to second. He scored when Sperry singled sharply. Castillo then hit Paquette with a pitch, but freshman catcher Clark Crary picked him off first. Thus, only one run scored when Tiger freshman Ryan Brouillard dropped a two-out single down the right-field line.

Morter and Castillo worked out of some trouble in the second and third innings, but Morter couldn’t wriggle off the hook in the fourth. Johnson walked, and Crary hit into a fielder’s choice and replaced him on first. With two out, a throwing error on a ball hit by White put runners on second and third, and Barnard singled both home to tie the game. Another miscue allowed Barnard to score, and the Eagles led, 3-2, after four innings.

The Tigers came right back in the fifth. After Tanner Castillow made two fine catches on deep drives to left field, they rallied with two outs. Sperry walked, and Carter Paquette scored him with a triple into right-center. Whitney singled in Paquette, and the Tigers were back on top, 4-3. 

Neither team manager a baserunner in their next at-bats. Castillo went seven innings, allowing five hits and four runs and striking out four.

Finally, the Eagles came to the plate in the fateful bottom of the seventh still down by a run. With one out, Corrigan and Ready laced back-to-back singles to put the winning runs on base. Cam Castillo hit into a fielder’s choice, and Peck took his place on first, with Ready on second. Two wild pitches and Tanner Castillo’s infield hit tied the game, and a walk to Johnson loaded the bases and ended Morter’s day on the mound — he allowed seven hits, four runs, one earned, and struck out two.

And then came the walk on the close pitch, and the untouched base, and the further drama in the eighth, and finally the 12-8 Tigers lofting the trophy. 

Coach Jason Barnard’s young Eagle team wrapped up an outstanding season at 13-7. Mount Abe would appear to have a bright future, with senior co-captains Tanner Castillo and the versatile Jamison Huizenga the only graduation losses. 

The Tigers have a veteran team with eight seniors — Dylan Stowe, Aiden LaDuke and Wyatt Stearns as well as the five who saw action in the final — that Warren said has been eyeing a championship since they first came to MUHS. 

JUBILANT MUHS SENIOR baseball captains, from left, Cole Warren, Carter Paquette and Timothy Whitney, loft the Division II trophy after edging Mount Abraham at Centennial Field on Saturday night.
Independent photo/Andy Kirkaldy

“It means the world to me. Freshman year, we look in the gym, and we don’t see a Middlebury baseball banner, and we see one for every other sport. That was our goal, to get a banner up,” Warren said. “Now it’s my senior year, and I’m very happy we did it.”

Coach Tim Paquette talked about how the Tigers went from 1-7 to taking home the program’s first title. 

“They didn’t hang their heads. They knew what they were capable of doing,” Coach Paquette said. “They finally strung it all together, and they put Middlebury baseball back on the map.”

Paquette has been coaching many of his varsity players since Little League, and his voice cracked when talking about them. 

“It feels like the top of the world. We did it,” said Paquette. “I’m so happy I can’t even talk.”

Carter Paquette also talked about winning with his coach — and father — in the process.

“My coach is my father, and I love him to death, and we do this together,” he said. “We shed tears together. We did today, and I’m very proud of that.” 

Note: An early version of this story used the wrong first name for Abe Ready. The author apologizes for the error.

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