SHEFFIELD -- When Mount Everett senior shortstop Colby Rueger was asked recently when he believed his baseball team had a chance to win the Western Mass. Division III championship, a shy smile crossed his face.
"I thought we had a good chance from Day One," he admitted.
This was not a statement made in innocent optimism. Rueger is one of several four-year starters on the squad. Two years ago, Mount Everett was beaten in the Western Mass. finals. Last year, the team started well at 6-0 before fading to 10-9.
This year, the Eagles weathered a slow start at 2-4, but finished strongly. The team is now one win away from the school's first state championship in any sport. They will play North Reading today at Holy Cross at 3:30.
To the casual observer, the Eagles' run may seem a little like a Cinderella story. Plucky kids from a tiny school, make their way through the tournament, winning game after game on guts and guile.
Actually, Coach Jesse Carpenter has a veteran team that's been together for a while. Several of his senior starters have played together for four years. Some even longer than that.
"A lot of us have been playing together since Little League and Babe Ruth," said second baseman Will Danz. "We're familiar with each other."
The team has solid starting pitching in junior starters Erik Derwitsch and senior Dylan Wheeler, an outstanding defense and a good hitting lineup.
The Eagles' final opponent is North Reading, the Northern Mass. Division III champion. North Reading started 0-2, but is now 21-4.
Junior Ryan McAuliffe is North Reading's starting pitcher today. He is 10-2 this year. Wheeler, Mount Everett's starter, is 5-1.
North Reading is coached by Frank Carey, who will be inducted into the National High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame on Nov. 30. Carey has been at North Reading for 48 years and has more than 650 wins. He's won four state titles, the last final appearance coming in 1986. But this year was not, said Carey, a team he thought had a chance to be the fifth.
"I was looking forward to this team," said Carey. "We lost 13 seniors [from last year's team]. It was very refreshing to get a group of young kids, knowing you had to start from the bottom."
Carey starts four sophomores, three juniors and two seniors.
"The strength of the team is our defense," he said. "And if you play good defense, it means you have good pitching. We've gotten better [since the season started]. We've got more confidence."
When Mount Everett started the season 2-4, a still-confident Carpenter knew they needed to turn it around at some point.
"We were making a ton of errors," he said. "We lost to St. Joseph's down here and we made eight errors. I knew we wouldn't win too many games playing like that."
The consensus of several seniors was that the Sabis game in late April was the key. The Eagles defeated Sabis 7-2. The victory was not a blowout by any stretch, but it was a solid performance for the offense and the defense.
"That was the first time we hit the ball well and made the plays in the field," said left fielder Ethan Chamberlain. "That was the first game where we put it all together."
"We started to play well in the middle of the season," said catcher Alex Crane. "We tailed off a little at the end, but we knew we were good."
The Eagles' postseason run has been mostly overpowering. Mount Everett beat Smith Academy in the first round, 10-1, then hammered St. Joseph's 15-3 in the quarterfinals.
The decisive win over St. Joe's was a big win for Carpenter, whose teams have been stymied by the Crusaders several times over the years.
In the Western Mass. semifinals, Derwitsch, who has been lights-out in the postseason, shut down Pioneer Valley, 5-0. Early in the season, Pioneer had spanked Mount Everett 11-6 in a game that wasn't that close.
Wheeler shut down Frontier 3-1 on a two-hitter in the Western Mass. final, and Derwitsch came back with a strong performance in a 3-0 win over Oxford in the state semifinals.
Let by third baseman Garrett Torrico, the Eagles have hit well for most of the tournament.
"Garrett's been a great hitter since about tee-ball," said Crane.
"I think it's been a good thing," said Rueger of the team's strong postseason. (The Eagles have trailed only once in five games, falling behind Frontier 1-0.) "It's given us confidence."
"The Frontier game was a good game for us," said Danz. "We fell behind, but we knew we could win. We just had to be patient."