Hopkins Academy, Northampton prepared for unfamiliar tests

Andrew Ciaglo jumped out of his chair when his phone lit up with the news that Hopkins Academy was hosting the Division 4 baseball state semifinal.

The Golden Hawks, who became Western Massachusetts champions for the third consecutive tournament Monday, will face Central Mass. champion Tahanto at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at UMass’ Earl Lorden Field (still technically in the town limits of Hadley).

“Everyone’s going to be there supporting us,” said Ciaglo, a junior pitcher and shortstop. “We’ve just got to go out and make the town of Hadley proud.”

Hopkins Academy (14-2) lost its previous two state semifinal appearances: in 2018 against Oxford at Earl Lorden Field and in 2019 to Tahanto in Worcester. The Golden Hawks last reached a state final in 2014 and last won a state title in 1985.

“They’ve all been there before, but there are a lot of young, inexperienced players. We have four players who never played a varsity game before this year,” Hopkins Academy coach Dan Vreeland said. “I’ve been preaching to them all year that we don’t have to make spectacular plays in the field or do anything like that. We just have to do what’s right in that moment and make the correct plays behind our pitchers. We have a phenomenal pitching staff. I’d put our one and two against anyone in the state. They’ve been virtually unbeatable.”

Ciaglo threw seven innings against Tahanto in 2019 as a freshman before the Golden Hawks fell in extra innings. He’s ready for the ball again with a chance to send Hopkins to the state final.

“This is kind of a revenge game,” Ciaglo said. “It’s a lot of my friends’ last year, we want to make it special and keep playing as long as we can. I’m excited to get back on the mound against [Tahanto].”

Tahanto (14-1), which was the top seed in the Central Mass. Division 4 tourney, also features dominant pitching. Austin Stone took out Hopedale in the sectional final, so the Golden Hawks will likely draw Ryan Walton, who is 3-1 with a 0.20 earned-run average and has struck out 47 batters in 27 innings, or Justin Wolfe, who is 5-0 with a 2.66 ERA.

The Stags have six hitters with a batting average over .350 led by Adam Fuller at .415. Wolfe leads Tahanto with 12 RBIs.

“The thing that is comforting is that we know the style that they play. They play a similar style to Ware,” Vreeland said. “They get gritty and get runs where they can and steal and bunt. They’re constantly trying to do the right baseball thing and make you make a mistake. At least we have a sense that’s the type of team we’re playing. Usually you don’t have any idea.”

Northampton ‘bouncing off the walls’ ahead of D1 semifinal

The energy of Northampton’s walk-off single to win its first Western Mass championship in two and a half decades hasn’t dissipated. 

“They’re still bouncing off the walls,” Northampton coach Ryan Parent said. “They’re still excited about the win and the way we won it.”

With one trophy in hand, the Blue Devils now turn their sights on pursuing another. They will travel to face Central Mass. champion Leominster on the road at 6 p.m. Wednesday in a game to be played at Doyle Field.

It’s a completely unfamiliar matchup after playing league opponents and contemporary foes in the sectional tournament. Northampton (14-2) is piecing together information about Leominster (17-1) from friends, travel teammates and wherever else they can get intelligence on their opposing Blue Devils.

Leominster’s Evan McCarthy is hitting .537 with two homers and 18 RBIs. Northampton won’t have to worry about him as a pitcher (7-0, 0.33 earned-run average), as he threw 6 1/3 innings in the Central Mass. title game.

But Sean Dutton (.462) and Tyler Smith (.400) are both hitting over 400 with 13 and 12 RBIs, respectively.

“They seem to be a deep team with a lot of talent in a lot of different places that can do a lot of different things,” Parent said. “It’s such a weird thing. We don’t know them or anything about them. We just have to focus on what we do.”

That would be a deep, balanced team that relies on players performing their roles well. Northampton haven’t had an ace this season, though Will Shaw certainly pitched like one in the extra inning victory over Westfield on Monday.

“We have four or five guys that have pitched great. I have two or three guys that haven’t pitched much in the playoffs that would be number two [pitchers] on other teams,” Parent said. “You have to keep them in the moment and make sure they’re ready to do the job.”

Parent and Northampton also appreciate the uniqueness and novelty of the situation. This is the last year of the current tournament format featuring sectional tournaments feeding one champion into a state tournament, as Massachusetts will move to statewide tournaments next year.

“It’s a last hurrah and we’ll enjoy it while we can,” Parent said.

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