WORCESTER, Mass. – From a relatively unknown program to the unquestioned kings of MIAA Division 3 baseball, it’s been quite a journey for the Crusaders.
With a dramatic 5-4 win over Eastern Mass. Champion North Reading, Groton-Dunstable (23-0) wrapped up a perfect season and became the first undefeated baseball state champion since Plymouth North accomplished that feat as D2 champs in 2008.
It was far from a sure thing for the Crusaders, as ace Justin Watt (6.1 IP, 7 H, 4 BB, 4 R, 3 ER, 8 Ks) struggled early while putting his team in a 3-0 hole, but they rallied for four runs thanks to some clutch hitting in the bottom of the fifth and added a key insurance run in the sixth inning.
The Hornets of North Reading (22-4) didn’t go down easily by any means. They put two runners on base to start the top of the seventh and moved both into scoring position with a deep fly to right field.
Groton-Dunstable head coach Matt LeBlanc pulled Watt at that point to bring in his second star on the mound in Joe Simeone, and the UConn commit relished the opportunity to come through in a pressure situation.
“That’s why you play the game, for spots like that,” Simeone said. “It’s always exciting to get out there and try to shut the door for Justin [Watt], who did an awesome job today.”
Simeone allowed Hornets shortstop Tyler Calos to lift a fly ball on the first pitch to plate one run and make it a 5-4 game.
He proceeded to hit Pat Driscoll and walked Jared Valade to load the bases for Bobby Donohue (2-4, R). The junior outfielder found a pitch he could handle and chopped it up the middle, but his hopes of a championship-winning single were stymied by Crusaders second baseman Chris Lattini, who made an incredible diving stop and stepped on the bag to seal the first state title in program history.
D3 State Final: Groton-Dunstable 5, North Reading 4. Tense finish and a great play to end it pic.twitter.com/5IALyfnQJt— Nate Weitzer (@nweitzer7) June 18, 2016
“When I saw the contact I thought it might squeak through, but [Chris] Lattini made a great play behind me and then I felt more relief than anything,” Simeone said. “This is what we’ve been working for all year and I’m just ecstatic to see it happen.”
LeBlanc added that the team never really thought about completing an undefeated season as much as they wanted to win a state championship.
Now that they’ve completed that goal, he said, “It means the world to me because I’ve had these kids for the last three years and a lot of them went to my clinic when I started it eleven years ago. I couldn’t think of a better group to make this happen and I’m just so happy for them.”
Turning The Tide: The Hornets came out with a certain approach against Watt, who had only allowed one earned run during an historic season for Groton-Dunstable.
North Reading’s hitters choked up on the bat and went with Watt’s outside pitches to slap a couple of key hits, including a triple from Shawn DiVecchia to open the scoring. Jason Merullo would add a two-out, two-run single in the top of the fourth to put his team up 3-0, but LeBlanc called his team together in between frames to regroup.
Huge 2-out 2-run single from John Merullo to put North Reading up 3-0 top 4th pic.twitter.com/lMEnhH8N5t— Nate Weitzer (@nweitzer7) June 18, 2016
“I told them to just stay with it,” LeBlanc recalled. “Believe and don’t let doubt creep in. That was the message.”
Hornets starter Greg Johnson (5+ IP, 7 H, 0 BB, 5 R, ER, 3 K) was cruising to that point, but he hit both Watt and nine-hitter Matt Naughton with one out in the bottom of the fourth.
Lattini (2-3, R, 2 SB) would reach on an error to load the bases and the Crusaders made the most of their opportunities when Jacob Barnes lifted a single into shallow right field to score two.
Jacob Barnes comes up big with a 2-out 2-run single and Crusaders now trail 3-2 bot 5th pic.twitter.com/MXhQb5dZPh— Nate Weitzer (@nweitzer7) June 18, 2016
They would tie the game at three when an errant pickoff throw went into center field before Simeone put his team ahead 4-3 with a ringing double to deep left-center.
“It was a gutsy performance by our guys,” said LeBlanc. “Justin [Watt] beared down and we got that big inning eventually. North Reading is a great team and they gave us everything we could handle right down to the very end.”
The Crusaders held on to complete a storybook ending to their incredible season, but LeBlanc reiterated that this championship means much more than finishing with zero losses.
“We never really thought about the undefeated season,” said LeBlanc. “It was more about the fact that we were in the state championship game and we just wanted to give it everything we had.”
Thanks to their resilience and the strength of the two horses on their pitching staff, the Crusaders will stand forever as champions with an immaculate record.