83 games and counting for Portsmouth (N.H.)

When it seemed clear that the Portsmouth (N.H.) High baseball team was about to extend the program’s winning streak to 83 games by beating St. Thomas Aquinas in last Saturday’s Division II championship game, the conversation in the Northeast Delta Dental press box turned to next season. How good will Portsmouth be in 20102?

The answer: pretty darn good.

Like most teams, the Clippers will have some significant pieces to replace, but Portsmouth will return most of its starting lineup. The key losses will be starting pitcher Keegan Taylor and center fielder Aidan O’Leary, both of whom have committed to play Division I baseball. Taylor will play for Northeastern, and O’Leary for Manhattan.

“We’ll have a decent nucleus of five or six guys coming back,” Portsmouth coach Tim Hopley said. “When you lose kids like [Taylor] and Aidan O’Leary it’s significant.”

Taylor, who earned the win in Portsmouth’s 9-6 triumph over St. Thomas (Dover), was 10-0 this season and 25-0 during his high school career. O’Leary hit .434 with a team-high 13 stolen bases this season.

Right fielder Quinn McCann, who entered the championship game with a .424 batting average, will also be tough to replace.

Portsmouth will return the following starters: catcher Conor Trefethen, third baseman Matt Feeney, shortstop Billy Hartmann, second baseman Connor McCauley, first baseman Ricky Holt and outfielder Kyle DiCesare.

McCauley, who can also catch, was batting a team-high .439 entering the championship game. Holt will replace Taylor as the team’s ace. He was 7-0 with a 1.56 ERA after he pitched a complete game against Laconia in the Division II semifinals. He pitched two scoreless innings in the championship game.

“Standing here right now I can’t see how we’re not going to drop off a bit, but I probably said that last year and the year before too,” Hopley said.

Portsmouth’s victory over St. Thomas handed the program its fourth-consecutive Division II championship. Portsmouth hasn’t lost a game since the 2007 season.

The Clippers broke the national record for consecutive victories when they beat Pembroke Academy to push the winning streak to 76 games during the regular season.

Although some people would like to see the Clippers move up to Division I, Hopley scoffed at the suggestion.

“People ask us about that all the time,” Hopley said. “My answer is simply, ‘If we were the biggest school in Division II then I would understand it, but we’re the fourth or fifth biggest school in Division II.

“The reality is if people expect us to move up based on success then 1) they haven’t paid attention to the program for the entirety, and 2) I would expect that they voice those concerns about the other four schools that have a bigger enrollment than we do.”

The Portsmouth junior varsity team lost five games this season, after suffering one loss from 2007 to 2010.

Portsmouth’s latest victory was one of its strangest. Because of a lightning delay, the game didn’t start until 10:25 p.m., and ended just before 1 a.m.

New Hampshire’s pitching rules also forced Hopley to get creative with how he used Taylor. Pitchers are allowed to throw a maximum of 16 innings in the tournament and Taylor had five innings of eligibility left entering the championship game. Taylor started the game on the mound, but also pitched four innings of relief.

Taylor moved from the mound to right field after the first inning. He moved back to the mound in the fourth, after Holt pitched two scoreless innings.

“It was something new,” Taylor said. “I’ve never sat that long. It must have been like 45 minutes that I was sitting out for. It was tough. I got a little cold.

“We were up in the air until five minutes before game time. I went to [Hopley] and said, ‘OK, I can do that.’ It was in my hands whether I wanted to do it or not.”

Hopley said until the start of the game was delayed by lightning he planned to start Holt, and bring Taylor in at the beginning of the third.

“I was concerned with them getting momentum early,” Hopley said. “Ricky being a sophomore in an unfamiliar setting – and certainly one that’s full of pressure – I thought it might be best to go with Keegan because he’s been on that stage before and he’s very familiar with the hitters he was going to be facing.

“I put [Taylor] in a tough spot. We went back and forth all week long on how we were going to handle the whole pitching thing.”

Taylor allowed six runs on six hits, struck out 11 and walked one. He struggled through the fifth, when St. Thomas (12-8) scored five runs on four hits to take a 6-5 lead.

Although Taylor put his team in a hole in the fifth, he pulled the Clippers out of it in the sixth. That’s when he broke a 6-6 tie by hitting a two-out, two-strike pitch just inside the right-field line for a three-run triple that capped the scoring.

The Clippers (20-0) tied the game when Conor Trefethen started the inning with a double and ended up on third because of a throwing error. Kyle DiCesare followed with an RBI double that erased Portsmouth’s 6-5 deficit.

Hopley called the victory over St. Thomas the program’s biggest win in his 16 years as the program’s head coach.

“What the program has accomplished [setting the national record for consecutive victories} and what we’ve gone through and the attention that it has earned, to get to this point and not finish it with a win − that wasn’t something that I was prepared to deal with,” Hopley said. “It was a real important game for us. This was special.”