WORCESTER, Mass. -– For the first time since 1996, the Leominster Blue Devils are the Division 1 champions of Central Mass.
Led by seniors Tanner Jakola, Neil O’Connor, and Tyler Vaillette, the Blue Devils slipped past St. Peter-Marian 2-0 at Tivnan Field, bringing home a district championship trophy to the baseball-crazed town –- a trophy that after several district final and semifinal appearances in recent years, felt long overdue.
“It means everything, everyone gets affected by it," said O'Connor, who pitched four innings of shutout ball in relief for the Blue Devils. "Leominster is a very close-knit sports town. Two tough losses in the prior two seasons, so it feels good to come home with one and not think what maybe we could have done."
The title also meant Coach Rich Barnaby’s first championship in 18 years. The Blue Devils’ first-year head coach was the third baseman on the state championship-winning squad of 1996, coached by longtime Leominster coach Emile Johnson.
“We’ve been knocking on the door, it’s good to get that signature victory for the community of Leominster," Barnaby said. "It’s just a baseball town, parents take their kids to go play catch and their only vacation is a weekend in some random town in Vermont so that their kids can play high level baseball. It’s good to bring this back to a baseball town where the whole community works to make kids better.”
The Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year in football, and an integral member of the Leominster basketball team, O’Connor ranked the victory up with some of his best games he’s played in his high school career –- in any sport.
“I’ve had the best time of my life the last four years playing sports at Leominster," he said. "It’s definitely been fun to finally get a district final – it feels awesome for us. We’re just happy, we’re just enjoying the moment.”
Switching it up: Jakola, who got the start on the mound, gave up just one hit while pitching the first three innings for the Blue Devils. He was able to constantly keep SPM’s batters off-balance with his ability to hit spots and mix up his pitches early in counts. Starting Jakola came as a complete surprise to the Guardians and Coach Ed Riley, who was anticipating seeing O’Connor get the start.
“We weren’t expecting that at the beginning of the game, we were actually expecting O’Connor to come out and we prepared for him –- obviously there’s a big difference with the fastball," Riley said. "We leaked on a lot of pitches in the first three innings, [Jakola] set us up with some good offspeed stuff. It was a good coaching job by Rich. I was very surprised that he did that, but hey, it worked out for him.”
Said Barnaby, “When we put together the gameplan, we decided that the guy we wanted in the end of the game with the pressure was Neil. Not that Tanner couldn’t handle the pressure, but I don’t think there’s anyone in Central Mass. who is better at dealing with pressure than Neil O’Connor."
Vaillette anchors offense: Vaillette, who went 2-for-3 and drove in both of the game’s runs, was the offensive hero for Leominster. He had an RBI single with two outs in the first inning to give the Blue Devils the only lead that they would need.
“One thing Tyler does is he hits line drives and hard ground balls –- he always gives himself a chance," Barnaby said. "I knew in that situation he gave us the best chance to do something good. He won the game with two clutch hits. That’s what the playoffs are all about: walks, errors, clutch hits –- that’s it."
Vaillette struck one more time in the sixth inning for some insurance, nailing a fastball for a base hit that would drive in Ryan Lever -– who had two hits of his own and scored both of the Blue Devils’ runs. Getting the early lead was key for Leominster, with a big reason being that Riley said he would only throw his son Jack, a UConn commit and finalist for ESPN Boston’s Mr. Baseball award, if the Guardians had a lead or had been able to tie the game.
Riley had been hoping to not have to use Jack in Friday’s thrilling victory over Doherty -– a game where he came in to throw three innings of relief to ensure a Guardians’ appearance in the championship game. Jack went to his father before the game asking to pitch, but Riley refused.
“He threw 100 [pitches] between Monday and Friday," Riley said. "Jack loves his teammates and he came to me and said ‘I want to pitch,’ but there’s got to be a limit – he’s got bigger fish to try at the next level and I’m not going to put his arm in jeopardy like mine was when I was in high school. He wanted the ball, I want to state that, but he wasn’t getting the ball. He had done his job. If we got a lead or we had gotten some runs he would have thrown an inning.”
Added O'Connor: “We knew getting the lead early was important, if we went down there was a good chance we were going to see Riley -– so we wanted to get the lead early and just stay out in front."
Gallagher a name to remember: Riley went with sophomore Pat Gallagher on the mound Sunday, a hard-throwing right hander who is likely to be the Guardians’ go-to ace in the years to come. Gallagher threw the first three innings for SPM, giving up the ball to senior Nate Frederick in the fourth – he gave up one run in what was likely the biggest stage that he’s ever pitched on.
“A 15-year old on the mound, are you kidding me? A 15 year-old sophomore -- that’s guts right there. He did his job, he did more than his job,” Riley said, “You’re going to hear the name Pat Gallagher in the next couple of years. He’s going to come in pitching in some big games for us, he’s going to be our man next year.
“I’m glad he got the experience, I know it’s going to help him going forward, he’s a tough, tough competitor on the mound. That’s half the battle when you’re out there, if you don’t have the mindset that you’re going to go after guys then you’re going to get eaten alive. He has that mindset, and he has the stuff to back it up. I’m happy for him, he did a great job for a young pitcher.”