A quick look at the statistics leaders or the standings or even ESPN Boston's MIAA Top 25 poll and it’s pretty clear: East Longmeadow is the team to beat in Western Massachusetts.
So much for a rebuilding year.
The Spartans, who won their first 14 games this season and will likely enter the postseason as the top seed in the sectional Division 1 tournament, are doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing. They’re winning games at a higher clip than expected, dominating like a veteran squad filled with talent. They’re proving the region wrong.
When East Longmeadow graduated perhaps the most talented senior class the program had ever seen last June, the door was open for Westfield, Cathedral and all other contenders in the Pioneer Valley. That door was shut quickly by the Spartans thanks to a full supply of impact arms and a team-oriented attitude.
“This team has no superstars,” said second-year head coach Scott Whelihan. “They work together and get along very well.”
East Longmeadow has long been a contender at the Division 1 level. The Spartans are often among the favorites, as was the case last year.
Last spring, the Spartans were the region’s No. 3 seed after a 15-5 regular season campaign. They relied on the arms, bats and defensive prowess of the top senior class in Western Mass.
Steve Moyers was a four-time All-Scholastic lefty. Matt O’Neil was perhaps the region’s top position player and hitter at shortstop. Garrett Baker was an experienced third baseman. All three were elite pitchers, fielders and hitters. All three were bound for NCAA programs --- Moyers to URI, O’Neil to UConn and Baker to Division 2 Cedarville University.
It was a tall task replacing the trio, which had helped East Longmeadow compile 75 victories in their time with the program.
In particular, the pitching staff, with the loss of Moyers, the southpaw who went 30-3 over the course of his varsity career, was facing a tall task.How could they replace the production of a hard-throwing left hander with nasty stuff?
The answer was plura and rather easy: Jake Smith and Caleb Berard.
To put it plainly, Smith and Berard have been dominant this year for East Longmeadow. The two lefties are a combined 10-1 on the hill and a big reason for the team’s success.
Smith, a senior, is the staff ace. He’s determined, not afraid to attack the opposition and a bit quirky --- like all good southpaws. He’s gone no less than five innings in all of his starts, including the lone loss to Cathedral, in which he battled despite not having his best stuff. His one-hitter against Holyoke earlier in the season, when he took a no-no into the seventh, remains the most stellar performance of the year.
For Berard, his best outing was undoubtedly the no-hitter against Belchertown. He also has the 12-strikeout complete-game against rival Longmeadow. All told, Berard, a junior, is 5-0 and uses his long frame and devastating slider to keep hitters off balance.
Not too bad for a couple first-year varsity players.
“We were told last year that we wouldn’t get innings at varsity,” Smith said. “So, I stayed on JV and just worked hard. I knew good things would happen.”
Ben Pelletier, a senior, is the third man in the region’s deepest starting rotation. The right-hander entered the season as the only starter with varsity innings and has performed well, going 4-0 with 25 strikeouts in 30-plus innings on the hill.
“We have three very good pitchers,” Whelihan said. “They’ve performed great for us all year.”
For a team with minimal varsity experience, the run to an undefeated season could’ve caused anxiety and tightness. That’s why the team’s first loss --- a mid-May, 8-4 loss to Cathedral --- wasn’t necessarily looked at as a negative by head coach Scott Whelihan.
“Oh we learned a lot,” he said. “We learned to never give up and these guys don’t. In that game, they never got down and we were down early against Chicopee (in our next game). They’ve played hard and as a team all season.”
And, according to the Spartans, ‘team’ is the key word in their success. This team is perfectly fine without the superstar status of recent East Longmeadow teams.
“That’s it, we’re a team,” Berard said. “There are no superstars. Most of the team is JV players from last year. We just want to work hard and win.”