WORCESTER, Mass. -- A dark grey overcast sky settled over Holy Cross’s Fitton Field before Saturday’s MIAA Division 1 state baseball championship game, dropping the occasional mist. It was symbolic of a dreary, unpleasant ending approaching -- which was fitting, given the gravity of the game held on the field.
One team was going home unhappy. One team was going to see an entire season’s worth of work culminate in a state title. All those practices and time dedicated was going to be worth it. For the other team, it was going to come up a little short.
Norwood knew that feeling all too well. Last season, the Mustangs came up short in the state title game, losing to Leominster and its fiery ace Neil O'Connor. This year, they finished the job, getting out to a quick 8-1 lead on St. Peter-Marian and never looking back, earning their first state championship in program history since 1943.
The Guardians actually jumped out to an early lead in the top of the first. PJ Berry beat out an infield hit to the second baseman, then advanced to third on a stolen base and wild pitch. He crossed the plate when Erik Lacaire beat out a slow grounder to third.
From that point in the game, Norwood’s Sean Mellen took the game over. The junior lefty struck out 6 of the next 7 St. Peter-Marian batters. He threw 118 pitches in a complete game effort. He got himself into a little bit of trouble in the fourth after two walks and a single loaded the bases with two outs. Mellen came back to get Matt Demma to strike out swinging and get out of the jam.
“With him (Mellen), he’s his own worst enemy, but when he’s on, we relax,” said Norwood coach Kevin Igoe. “He’s the real deal.”
The Mustangs answered back with two runs in the bottom of the inning. Declan O’Brien led off with a walk and scored three batters later on a wild pitch. Kevin Hines (2-for-3, HR, 3 RBI, BB) later scored when Cam Ryan’s grounder to left got past the SPM third baseman.
They added six runs in the bottom of the second off Guardians pitcher Pat Gallagher. It chased the junior after 1.1 innings, most impressively by Hines’ 3-run bomb over the left-center field wall to make it 8-1.
“It was a first-pitch fastball, I look for it every time,” said Hines. “It felt good.”
Norwood batted around in the inning, and Mullen took over from there. It won the state championship it so desperately wanted after last season’s disappointment.
Mellen masterful: Other than the first inning in which Mellen threw 20 pitches and gave up SPM’s only run of the game, the junior lefty put in one of the performances athletes dream about giving in the big games. He gave up 4 hits, struck out 14 batters, and walked only 3. This came after throwing two shutout innings in relief during Wednesday’s Eastern Mass. finals 3-2 victory over Chelmsford.
“I felt the the later the game got, the better and stronger I felt on the mound,” he said. “I had a great defense behind me. I was just trying to get ahead and get outs as quick as possible because I knew once I got in the dugout, we would go and get more runs. As soon as I got back in, I was feeling confident.”
Hines, Mellen’s battery mate behind the plate, got a firsthand look at just how strong of a pitching performance it was Saturday night.
“This was definitely one of his best games I caught for him,” said Hines. “He can be shaky at times, but he definitely brought his stuff.”
Just win, baby: Some might call it a miracle or a fluke that Norwood made it as far as it did in the tournament. It came in with a 10-10 record, winning the minimal amount of games to qualify for the postseason. Others will say the true sign of a champion is the ability to win the important games when it has to.
So which is Norwood? Well, for the second year in a row, it came into the postseason with a record at or just above .500 (11-9 last year), but it has been in the Division 1 title game two years in a row. That is not a fluke, that is emblematic of the talent on the team.
“We knew what happened last year,” said Igoe. “We took a deep breath when we got to 10 (wins). To be the champion, you’ve got to be able to compete in pressure situations, which is what we did.”
The Mustangs were able to take the lessons learned from last year’s crushing defeat and harvest them into a state championship this season.
“Once we got into the playoffs, we knew we had to turn it on and that’s exactly what we did,” said Mellen.
St. Peter-Marian is now that team who has tasted defeat at the most inopportune time. It has the mix of youth, talent, and postseason experience to be a leading contender to make a deep run in the next postseason.
“I’m very proud of my team, I’d go to war with them any time,” said Riley. “It’s not bad for a bunch of 15 and 16-year-olds. We have two seniors on the team. We’re going to be back. We’re going to be back very soon.”
“They’re going to come back and they’re going to represent,” Riley added. “They know what it takes to get here. Kind of like Norwood’s past. I know they lost in the final last year to a very good Leominster team and now they know what it’s like. We’re going to take this loss and we’re going to learn from it.
"We’re going to build the program up in the winter. These guys know what they need to do to get back here. They know it’s not very easy, but now they have a taste of what it’s like to get back here, and hopefully we can very soon.”