AMHERST, Mass. -- When your team is the defending Western Mass champion it puts a target on your back and makes you the hunted one all season long. The Taconic baseball team stood strong to that challenge all year, and Saturday afternoon they once again reached the mountaintop and claimed their third consecutive sectional title.
Taconic held off a tough Wahconah squad for a 5-1 victory, in the Western Mass Division 3 championship at Earl Lorden Field at the University of Massachusetts.
“This feels great. Every time you win a Western Mass it is a whole different experience, and this is a whole different team than last year,” starting pitcher Christian Womble said. “We are a very, very young team, and winning with how young we are is just amazing.”
Taconic claims its fifth Western Mass title overall and advances advance to the State Semifinal still in the hunt for their next state championship. Taconic (20-3) will take on the Hudson Hawks on Tuesday night at 4 p.m., in a state semifinal at Bud and Jim Hagan Field on the Westfield State University campus. The Hawks (13-12) advanced after winning the Central Mass title on Saturday with a 3-2 victory over the Bay Path Minutemen.
“It is a different feeling for each one, and this group is a lot younger. So for them to experience this, and obviously it’s not over yet, but I’m excited for them,” Taconic head coach Kevin Stannard said. “It’s something special and it never gets old. I’m real happy for this team.”
Saturday’s finale pitted two of Berkshire County’s best in a contest that lived up to the billing. The action was gritty and intense, and the two sides brought out the best baseball from one another.
“For us to keep them at five runs is big,” Wahconah head coach Ernie Wellington said. “The last two times we played them they beat us 16-0 and 15-6, so for us to come out here and keep it as close as we did is a tribute to these kids.”
Despite two lopsided victories already this season, Taconic did not take Wahconah lightly. Nothing came easy for either side, and it was an old-fashioned battle.
“We’ll put our pitching and our defense up with anyone,” Stannard said. “For the most part of the year, we were hitting the crap out of the ball. But come tournament time you are facing great pitching, and that was what we faced today.”
Womble was the equalizer in the close showdown. Like a gunslinger with pinpoint aim and the confidence that he can hit every target every time, Womble carved his way through a challenging Wahconah batting order. The right-hander allowed one unearned run on five hits and two walks, as he pounded the strike zone on 68 of his 108 total pitches in seven full innings of work.
Wahconah (14-9) did everything it could to prepare for the match up. Wahconah had guys come out and pitch to them, the team cranked up the pitching machine and the guys did different hitting drills. All of it could only simulate so much against a special talent like Womble, who got better as the game wore on to deliver his best innings at the end.
“For me, I usually throw with about 75% of what I can throw through the first four, and try to work on location and get my curveball working,” Womble said. “Then, in the fifth, sixth and seventh inning, that is when I kick up to my best gear and that is when I start gunning the fastball as hard as I can. By that time, it is all accurate.”
Nothing helps motivate a pitcher like run support, and Taconic wasted no time in putting up a run in the bottom of the first. Womble reached on a throwing error and came home when Leo Arace lined an RBI single up the middle.
“Right when I got in the dugout after I scored on my single, I came around and I knew that I was about to come out here for the kill. It’s just a confidence boost,” Womble said.
Womble locked in and took control on the mound, unaffected even despite allowing base runners in each of the next three frames. Wahconah starter Chad Hones clubbed a double to left in the second, but was stranded as the next two batters were retired. An inning later, Caden Frazier shot a single up the middle with two outs, but he too was stranded.
On the other side, Howes did a nice job of holding the rope and giving his hitters time to break through. The right-hander went five-and-a-third innings and surrendered two earned runs on six hits and four walks, and he struck out four.
“Chad pitched a phenomenal game for us. He kept us in this game,” Wellington said. “We knew that we could not beat this team by relying on fastballs. We have to come out here and we have to throw as much off-speed stuff as we can. They are way too disciplined of a team and they are going to jump on our fastballs, and when we do go with a fastball, don’t leave anything hanging. You have to hit the corners and you have to hit it up high.”
Taconic tacked on two unearned runs midway through to extend the lead. In the third, Arace walked, advanced on a base hit from Bo Bramer and then moved to third when Dylan Burke reached on an error. That allowed Jake Risley to deliver a sac fly RBI on a shot deep to center. An inning later, Michael Britten singled, advanced when Jake Harrington dropped down a bunt the defense could not handle and scored on a sac fly RBI from Womble.
“The errors killed us, those three runs on three errors,” Wellington said. “I was hoping we would come out and play tighter defense, but unfortunately that is what we have been doing all season long. Against a team as good as this one, you cannot give them those extra outs.”
Wahconah turned the tables to benefit from an extra out in the fourth. Joe Woronick reached on an error to lead off, and then moved into scoring position when Bob Archambault walked. Womble struck out the next batter, but then Tanner Hill put a charge in a shot deep to center for an RBI double that got Wahconah on the scoreboard.
Taconic grabbed the momentum back just as quickly as they lost it, as the defense gunned down the second runner at the plate on an 8-6-2 putout that soured the scoring rally.
“That is all stuff that we work on, so it was great,” Stannard said of that play. “Bo picked up the ball and made a perfect relay to Anton, and then Anton just threw an absolute seam home, and Leo was just waiting at home to receive it. So, all around, it was great.”
Lazits put the final touches on the victory with a loud swing in the sixth. He jumped on a 1-0 offering and sent it sailing 330 feet over the left field fence for a back-breaking, solo home run.
”As a leadoff guy, I try to take pitches and let my guys in the dugout see what is coming. I try to wait for my pitch, and I finally got it,” Lazits said. “It was great. I finally got a fastball up right where I like it and I just sent it. The wind was blowing out, so it carried.”
Taconic kept it going and chipped across one last run. Womble sliced a single just fair past third and then scored thanks to an RBI double from Brendan Stannard.
Womble made things anticlimactic in the seventh, retiring the side in order. After the first batter popped out in foul territory to the catcher, Womble struck out the next two to finish with 10 strikeouts and a victory celebration with his teammates.
While Taconic celebrated, Wellington and his coaching staff took one last time to salute their boys and the great season Wahconah had. The team slugged it out with the champs and proved every reason why it belonged there.
“That is one thing about this team is that all season long they have been confident,” Wellington said. “They always fought to the very last pitch of the game, and that obviously has gotten us to the point where we are at. If we dropped off and they didn’t stay focus, there are three or four games that we very easily could have lost.”