Down to business: Taconic baseball team heads to Lowell for MIAA Division III state championship game

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PITTSFIELD — Twelve months ago, the members of the Taconic baseball team watched as the nine from Austin Prep dog-piled on the pitcher's mound celebrating an MIAA state Division III title.

"I just remember the feeling when we lost, and it was an awful feeling," Taconic third baseman Brendan Stannard said. "That just motivated us all year, really, that feeling of defeat and how we want to win this time."

Taconic heads for Lowell Saturday with a chance to win a state title for the second time in three years. The Braves will play South Sectional and Eastern Mass. champion Medway in the second of three games at LeLacheur Park in Lowell. It's the second of three state championship games that are being played at the home of the Lowell Spinners, the Class A New York-Penn League affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. The first pitch is scheduled for 3:15 p.m, and Taconic will be the designated home team after winning the coin flip on Friday.

Taconic advanced to last year's Division III championship game one year after winning a state Division I title.

The Braves enter play with a 21-3 record and a four-game winning streak. Medway was the No. 5 seed in the South sectional, and enters its first-ever state championship game with a 17-6 mark.

Taconic coach Kevin Stannard has been in the dugout for all three state championship games. Two years ago, the Braves knocked off Wellesley in the Division I final.

"Each one has been different. The first year, obviously, was a group of kids who were seniors. We had 12-13 seniors on the team. They were solid. We had them for four years, all of them. They were really good friends." the coach said. "Last year, we didn't know what we had. We had a nice mix. We had a few seniors and had some underclassmen, but we really hadn't coached those seniors for all but one year. Then, this year has really been fun with the youth."

The Taconic players and staff have been on the Internet since beating Hudson in Wednesday's semifinal, checking up on the Mustangs. The coaches have some idea about what they do on a baseball field, but Stannard said that winning and losing on Saturday will be more about what the Braves do.

"I'm not one that really goes out and scouts, and worries about what the other team is doing," he said. "If we can pitch like we have. If we can play defense behind [the pitcher], and then do enough to score a few more runs, or at least one more run than the other team, then I'm fine with it."

The Mustangs are in a similar position to where the Braves were three years ago. After winning their first-ever South title, the Mustangs are now in their first state championship game.

Medway enters the game having won six straight contests.

Medway was the seventh seed in an 18-team sectional. The Mustangs beat 10th-seeded Tri-County Regional Vocational Tech 16-0 in the first round and knocked off No. 2 Diman RVT 7-0 in the quarterfinals. In the semis, Medway beat third-seeded Dedham 7-1, and beat eighth-seeded Ashland 1-0 in the South championship game.

The Mustangs, who are coached by former Medway player Mike Coppinger, got to the state semifinals in a similar fashion to how Taconic got there.

The Braves knocked off Berkshire North rival Wahconah to win the Western Mass. title. Medway's win over Ashland was also a league game, as both teams play in the Tri-Valley League.

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Medway got a complete-game, four-hit shutout from Eli Joyce-Vonce in the South championship game. Joyce-Vonce walked two and struck out three in that game. He's the ace of the Medway staff, with a 6-2 record and a 1.09 earned-run average. If Coppinger continues his pitching rotation, it'll be Joyce-Vonce against Taconic ace Christian Womble in the final.

Joyce-Vonce pitched the final two innings on Wednesday, when Medway beat Bishop Fenwick 5-1 in the Eastern Mass. championship game. Justin Pratt got the start in that game and gave up one run on four hits in five innings. Joyce-Vonce retired six of the last seven hitters of the game.

"That was an emotional game [against Ashland], but it wasn't hard at all to get back up for this one," Pratt told the MetroWest Daily News. "We're psyched, we're pumped up. This is the first time we've ever been to the state semifinals and now the state championship. We're really psyched to do it and we're going to come ready to play on Saturday."

Medway has outscored its tournament foes 35-2, but has played two more games than Taconic has.

According to MaxPreps.com, Nick Sheehan is Medway's leading hitter with a .426 batting average, while Matt Peterson has a .412 average, a .507 on-base percentage and a team-high 21 runs batted in.

Taconic will counter with Womble, the senior right-hander who recorded his 100th strikeout of the season in the win over Wahconah. He has 107 K's this season and is six away from 200 career punchouts. Considering he has only pitched on the varsity level for two seasons, that number is pretty impressive.

"No, not at all," Womble said, when asked before practice on Thursday if he was nervous. "Fighting for a state championship feels just normal now. I think we're going to try to keep it as business-like as usual. Every game that we've been to, we've never been too high or too low, try to keep the same energy for every game."

In 14 postseason innings, the Taconic senior has yet to give up an earned run. In fact, he gave up one run in total, that coming in the Western Mass. final against Wahconah. He has been touched up for nine hits in two games, while striking out 22 and walking only three.

"Every single game, [Taconic's pitchers] have been coming out strong," said catcher Leo Arace. "It's pretty simple. I'm putting my glove out and they're hitting it."

Anton Lazits, who will start at shortstop in the state championship game, is coming off a one-hit, 11-strikeout performance in the state semifinal win over Hudson. Of the 54 outs recorded in two Lazits-pitched games, 27 of them have been by strikeout.

Lazits also has had a hit in each of Taconic's four tournament games. He is 4 for 13 with three RBI, and a home run. His five homers are the most of any high school player in Western Mass. this year.

Womble is 4 for 12 in the post-season while Brendan Stannard is 4 for 11. Freshman Michael Britten is 3 for 11 with four runs scored. He moved into the designated hitter's role for the tournament.

"Friday night is going to be a tough [night to] sleep," Brendan Stannard said during Thursday's practice. "We're just excited. We're ready.

"It's not as much nerves as it is excitement about the game."

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.


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