D4 State Final: Lowell Catholic 1, Pope John Paul II 0

Lowell Catholic captured the Division 4 baseball state championship, the first in school history. David Carty for ESPNBoston.com

BROCKTON, Mass. -– When Chris Underwood slid safely across home plate at Campanelli Stadium on Wednesday afternoon, he concluded his final high school trip around the base paths.

So, too, did the senior put an end to MIAA Division 4 baseball play, with his solitary run making the difference in a 1-0 win for Lowell Catholic in the Eastern Div. 4 Championship. The Crusaders were delivered a state title off the bat of southpaw senior Alex Larmand, breaking a scoreless tie in the bottom of the seventh by poking a one-out offering into left field to score Underwood from second base and defeat the South Sectional champion Pope John Paul II of Hyannis.

“It’s just been a special group of kids,” said Lowell Catholic coach Matt Stone. “We have a bunch of seniors that know how to win. They’ve found ways to win. Even if they haven’t been the cleanest ways or the most textbook ways, they’ve found ways to win.”

The dreary day belonged to the pitchers. Lowell Catholic senior Liam Coughlin picked up a complete game win in his final outing, yielding four hits and one walk. Coughlin said his synapses were firing in his final half inning of work, plunking the leadoff Lion Collin Russell. That led to Pope John Paul II putting runners on first and second with one out, but Coughlin handled that at-bat as he those previous.

“In that kind of scenario, any base runner is momentum,” said Coughlin, getting his final outs on a pop-up and fly-out. “I’m just trying to throw strikes and get my team back in the dugout.”

The repertoire worked to full effect. Said Coughlin, “Early on, it was mostly my off-speed (pitches). I’d say I transitioned into the fastball toward the end of the game. That seemed to work well for me.”

No surprise for Stone and company, as Coughlin opened MIAA Tournament play with a no-hitter against Matignon in the Div. 4 North quarterfinal. Coughlin hasn’t stopped to stumble since.

“Throwing him out there, I’d put him against any pitcher, any team in the state,” said Stone. “He’s been pounding the zone. He has pitched to his game. He’s thrown strikes and made hitters hit. He’s just carried that momentum throughout.”

On the wrong end of luck, the Lions’ junior Austin Houlihan matched Coughlin pitch for pitch until that final fateful one. All five Crusader hits came in the fourth inning or later, with Houlihan generally avoiding trouble. In the final four innings, Lowell Catholic leadoff hitters thrice reached base, but it was only in the final frame that it scathed Houlihan.

The North Sectional champion Lowell Catholic broke up Houlihan’s no-hitter in the bottom of the fourth, as Chris Regan and Craig Maxfield bunted for consecutive infield singles. A pop-up and pair of groundouts ended the Crusader threat.

“Gutty, just really gutty,” said Pope John Paul II coach Mark Santos of his hurler Houlihan. “He pitched well enough to win. You give up five hits and an excuse-me hit to win it. He placed it great. He had control and command all day. Give them credit. They did a nice job. He hit a tough pitch. That’s the margin between winning a 1-0 game and losing a 1-0 game.”

Pope John Paul II junior Matt Thatcher led off the top of the fifth by fisting a single on his hands into center for a single, one of his two hits. Two groundouts moved Thatcher to third base with two outs but, just as it did with Lowell Catholic in the previous half inning, a weak groundout to first base put an end to the scoring chance.

A Larmand leadoff single sliced down the left field line went to waste in the bottom of the fifth, while Pope John Paul II was stymied by a pair of nice defensive plays in the top of the sixth. Crusaders leftfielder Regan made a tumbling snag to retire Matt Santos. Coughlin then helped himself out by leaping to snare a one-hop comebacker, under-handing to first for the second out with the third not far behind.

A 1-2-3 bottom of the sixth gave way to the Lions’ threat in the seventh, which also went by the wayside.

The bottom of the seventh saw Connor Sullivan reach on a leadoff single off the glove of Houlihan. The Lions retired the lead runner in a near-double-play, putting Underwood on first. Nick Cervizzi followed with a walk to bring up the No. 7 hitter Larmand.

So, the senior who had played baseball since age 4, when his father Marc began instructing him, shook off a pair of difficult early at-bats and delivered Lowell Catholic its first state baseball championship.

And, to think, with one week to go until the first spring practice of the season, Larmand was wielding a lacrosse stick, mulling a buzzer-beater sport change. Everyone from Athletic Director Jack Fletcher to his football coaches to his family weighed in on the decision, which pushed him back to hardball.

As a result, they can all share in his and the team’s accomplishment.

“If I had been watching from the stands, I’d be kicking myself,” Larmand said. “I’ve pictured doing this my entire life. It’s more than just the team, it’s the whole school.

“It’s amazing. I can’t put it into words. It’s unbelievable.”