Article by Stephen Garfield of the Caledonian-Record; photo by Paul Hayes/Michael Beniash of the Caledonian-Record
ACE, KINGS: Eamonn McCabe deals another gem, Hilltoppers earn first baseball crown in a decade
BURLINGTON — Pitching, it's often said, is the name of the game.
After the playoff run that resulted in St. Johnsbury Academy's annexing the Division I title Saturday night at Centennial Field, it's hard to argue otherwise.
With senior lefty Eamonn McCabe scattering six hits, issuing just one walk and fanning seven in their 3-1 win over Burr & Burton Academy, it wrapped up a postseason four-game run in which the Hilltopper southpaw tandem of McCabe and junior Patrick Greenan gave up two runs over the 32 innings.
When McCabe ended Saturday's game with a strikeout of the Bulldogs' James Reilly, the second-seeded Hilltoppers (17-3) had secured the program's first title since 2006 and set off a celebration on the field among the team, and off it with Hilltoppers fans.
"You couldn't ask for a better defense behind you," said McCabe, who after a season-opening loss, won his last 11 starts of the season that included three postseason victories. "Burr and Burton was pretty aggressive up there. We just wanted to keep them off balance and keep with what we'd been doing."
That he did.
Working with sophomore batterymate Jake Choiniere, McCabe kept the fifth-seeded Bulldogs at safe distance, throwing just 80 pitches in the complete-game effort. Burr & Burton had more than one runner on base in just two innings, and went one-two-three in three of the frames. The one walk the Bulldogs drew was to the game's first batter, Reilly. McCabe set down the next three in order, and the Hilltoppers were on their way.
It wasn't too chilly a night for coach Marc Choiniere to take the traditional postgame championship Gatorade/water bath.
"They played well all season long, and I'm glad they could finish it this way," he said after winning his first title in his fourth year at the helm. "It was nice for them to have this experience at Centennial Field.
"Eamonn – he was outstanding," coach Choiniere added. "He did what he's been doing all year long. He was efficient, he got quick outs."
The bender was an effective weapon all night for McCabe.
"I worked with my dad on my curveball at the Babe Ruth field [in St. Johnsbury]," the team's ace said. "As a pitcher I owe everything I've done to him."
Burr & Burton's Jay McCoy had his own good bender going, and was in command early going up 0-2 on the first five batters he faced.
Senior Jacob Johnson then broke the streak drawing a two-out walk. One pitch later it was 1-0 as sophomore Issac Nurko cracked a first-pitch double to the left-field wall.
The inning ended as Nurko got caught in a rundown between second and third, but St. J kept the pressure in the next inning as Greenan sac-bunted to second base senior Aaron Morrison, who'd drawn a leadoff walk.
McCoy responded well, however, battling back from a 3-0 count to strike out Graciano, SJA's leadoff hitter, and inducing a popup by freshman Jacob Cady.
The pressure and momentum was slowly shifting to BBA's defense, however, and it, and a couple of breaks helped the Hilltoppers to a 3-0 lead. McCabe himself got it started with a check-swing, opposite-field bloop double into left field.
One batter later, Johnson reached on a low throw from third to first. The Hilltoppers narrowly avoided another baserunning gaffe when third baseman Sam Cottrell didn't notice pinch runner Austin Wendell coming into third just as he released his errant throw to first base.
At any rate the next batter, Nurko, was hit by a pitch on a full count to load the bases for Choiniere. The catcher drew a walk to give St. J a 2-0 lead, prompting a pitching change. The move backfired, however, as reliever Griffin Stalcup hit Greenan with a pitch, forcing in St. J's third run.
"We became really disciplined at the plate, especially over the second half of the season," coach Choiniere said.
Burr & Burton's run came in the top of the sixth on a pair of one-out doubles to left field by Cody Roberts and McCoy. Graciano, the St. J left fielder, looked like had a play on Roberts' hit, and got a glove on McCoy's well-struck RBI shot that just eluded his leap and made it 3-1.
However, "In that twilight, with the [stadium] lights coming on, it was hard to pick up the ball on those plays," said Choiniere, a Centennial Stadium veteran who played four years for the Catamounts and two more as assistant coach.
McCabe then caught Mooney looking at a sweeping curveball, and retired the side on a popup to third base. Looking to restore their three-run lead, Choiniere led off the bottom of the sixth with a single, but Stalcup settled down nicely and retired the next three batters.
McCabe matched that with a one-two-three seventh, and the title was back in St. Johnsbury for the first time in a decade.
EXTRA BASES: The Hilltoppers flashed some glove in the fifth inning. Greenan ranged well into foul ground to run down a popup by leadoff batter Jon Iris, and two batters later, Graciano almost made what would have been the play of the game, coming up just short on an all-out dive for Reilly's single. ... It was a great playoff run for Nurko as well. The sophomore had two RBIs in the 2-1 semifinal win over Hartford and scored the winning run against Mt. Anthony in the first round. ... The St. Johnsbury Fire Department and Calex Ambulance greeted the returning champions on the outskirts of town, and were soon joined by a police cruiser to escort them to Colby Hall, where each player rang the bell.