Take a heavy dose of senior grit and add some quality sophomore fearlessness and what you have? How about a chance to play for a state championship?
Senior pitcher Josh Hamel worked out of a potentially game-changing jam in the second inning and then handled what could have been a damaging situation in the fifth inning while sophomore Devin DiVita was brilliant over the final two innings as No. 2 Northwestern Regional held off No. 3 Woodland, 3-2 at Muzzy Field Wednesday morning to earn a spot in the Class M title game.
The Highlanders will play East Catholic, an 8-2 winner over Waterford, on Saturday with firts pitch scheduled for 3:30 at Palmer Field in Middletown.
“This is unbelievable,” said co-coach Jim Davidson who is battling cancer. “Because of last year (no season) we had only three guys back and everybody improved. “
The Berkshire League champion Highlanders (23-1), seeded second, and No. 3 Woodland (21-3) put on a display you might expect from the respective rankings and records. But it almost got away early from the Highlanders.
Hamel was shaky early, walking two men in the second inning. An infield single from Tyler Giambra loaded the bases with no outs. He refused to let it all get away however.
Hamel coaxed Matthew Belcher to ground back to the box for a force at home and the first out. Croy Mastropietro then went down on strikes. Woodland did not let the threat get totally away when Jayden Tomasella lined an RBI single to left field for a 1-0 lead.
But Hamel regrouped and retired Ryan Montoni on a fly to center field to end the inning. What could have been a season ending inning for Northwestern was averted.
“I wasn’t really there in the second, I was amped up,” said Hamel. “I just realized the situation and calmed down.”
Hamel would face a test of a different sort before the top of the fifth inning. While warming up one of his pitches got away and hit the home plate umpire directly in the back of the head. While an anxious ballpark look on, the umpire was able to sit up after five minutes and after a 20 minute delay continue on in the game.
“I just said “dammit Josh you should have picked up the resin bag.” ‘, he said. “The ball just flew out of my hand. I just focused on throwing strikes.”
With Northwestern ahead, 3-1, at the time, Hamel could have been unnerved by the incident and the delay. However, he once again found the grit to come up big. Woodland took advantage of a walk, hit batter and double steal to put runners on second and third base with one out.
On an RBI single from Zach Drewry Matt Belcher was caught too far off third base and tagged out in a rundown. Hamel (105 pitches) got out of the inning without further damage finishing his day with a 3-2 lead.
“He’s our best practice player and understands he is a senior,” said co-coach Kevin Nelligan. “He just gutted it out. I love that kid.”
The Highlanders did all their damage in the third inning. Jack Lavoie led off with a single and one out later Jake Risedorf smacked an RBI double into the right field corner to tie the game, 1-1. After an Alberto Cantalini single, Wyatt Weber followed with an RBI single and then Hamel drove in a run with a ground out to short.
That was all the Highlanders would need. Nelligan handed the ball to DiVita in the sixth and the sophomore never blinked. After giving up a lead-off single, he struck out the side. In the seventh inning he added two more strikeouts, giving him five, and retired the side in the order.
“I was pretty nervous, my whole body was shaking,” said DiVita. “But, they weren’t hitting my fastball and when everybody stood up I just knew I had to finish it.”
“I had faith in Devin,” said Nelligan. “I wouldn’t have had trouble starting him.”
The Highlanders stormed the field after the final out and why not. They were going to a state final. They wore No. 7 for Nelligan who lost a son two years ago. And how about Hamel who went to school in Florida to help him kicking game (he will kick for AIC in college). He came back in December. And he graduates with a state final appearance.
It was a great day to be a Highlander.