Mike Walsh | Top Moment of 2017: Taconic baseball's wild ride
2017 was quite a rollercoaster. The most consistent part of that ride for me was the 2017 Taconic High School baseball team.
I wrote for three different newspapers in 2017. I've now written about the Braves state championship season for all three.
From the heartbreak of many baseball players losing a Western Massachusetts basketball title game at The Cage and a dejected but honorable Deonte Sandifer coming out of the locker room and shaking the hand of myself and Akeem Glaspie — with no words — to narrowly avoiding the water cooler dump on coach Kevin Stannard on Fitton Field in Worcester, to a massive banquet at the ITAM Lodge just a week or so ago, that team and those people were pervasive in 2017.
Looking back, this all started long before 2017 was even much of a thought. My first season covering sports in Berkshire County coincided with the freshman year of Stannard's 12 now-graduated seniors. Some of my first memories of Taconic baseball are of a meek freshman lefty coming on in relief Steve Witkowski and a tiny, but flashy shortstop everyone told me was the program's future.
Four years later, that meek lefty who I now knew as Jake McNeice — with a 1,000 claps banner hanging in the gym — cracked a walk-off double in the state semifinal and mirrored that in the first inning of the title game. That little shortstop who was all arms as a freshman grew into one Izaiya Mestre, who carried the Braves' hopes on his right arm through a complete game on the biggest stage possible: a Division I state championship game.
Memories of a diminutive Sandifer running around with Shaq Ardrey, a kid called Bacon breaking off 75-yard touchdown runs in garbage time of blowout losses, trying to get Brett Murphy to calm down enough to talk after a Babe Ruth win in Trumbull, Conn., a quiet rookie third baseman somehow being the best hitter on a team full of veterans and finishing 2015 with a better average than Kevin Donati, a little brother [Jack Cooney] batting lead-off and getting booed because his older brother played for the cross-town rival and he jumped schools to be with a group of friends that became the core of a state champion, all came to a head in 2017.
I covered all those kids growing up in The Berkshire Courier. Then, the day I spoke with first baseman Devon Walker and did a photo shoot to accompany a story about him signing to play Division I college football, I was told the Courier was ending. That was the middle of baseball season and the Braves were 8-0 with no signs of slowing.
I managed to follow them while working on the Berkshire Record in Great Barrington. I read and heard about how they responded to their season's first loss — a 2-1 extra-inning affair at Pope Francis mired in controversy in the regular-season finale — with a 1-0 win over those same Cardinals in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Western Mass. season had only made the Braves angry. A 19-1 season somehow earned Taconic a No. 5 seed and a road game to open the tournament.
So, the Braves went ahead and bashed "favored" teams in Westfield and Minnechaug by a combined score of 17-4 to win a ho-hum Western Mass. title. A photographer from the Pioneer Valley, shocked at the title game blowout-in-progress, asked me how crazy this seemed. I kind of chuckled in my response. It didn't seem that crazy at all after getting to know those players over the previous four years.
Taconic's run from there bordered on the absurd. The state semifinal win over Wachusett was ridiculous — at this point, south county paper or not, I wasn't missing a game. I think Howard Herman and I looked at each other and shook our heads in disbelief five different times that long night in Worcester.
Jake Flynn, who worked his way into the Braves true No. 2, threw two scoreless innings to start, but was tagged for a Grand Slam in the third.
However, Taconic loaded the bases and a rare pair of juniors came up big. Drew DeMartino and Cedric Rose each drove in a run, but that was only the start. Taconic took the lead in the fourth as DeMartino roped a two-run double, before Rose swatted a two-run homer to go ahead 7-4.
Wachusett went back ahead 10-7 in the fifth, and Taconic entered the bottom of the seventh down four runs.
Thriving off the adversity, and the trash talk coming from members of the Super 8 champion St. John's of Shrewsbury team behind the dugout — yet another slight for Taconic's mammoth shoulder chip — Murphy walked to lead off and Mestre doubled him in. Back-to-back strikeouts followed, as Wachusett brought on their ace in relief.
With one out to go, little brother no longer Jack Cooney singled and Mestre scored on a wild pitch, further elevating the drama. McNeice walked for the third time, giving DeMartino another chance. Big mistake, as the junior, now bound for Division I University of Hartford, turned on an offering and dropped it in the far left corner of Tivnan Field. Two scored, and we went deeper into a dark summer night.
Mestre, who threw a complete game two days prior to win the sectional trophy, took the ball from Stannard and set Wachusett down 1-2-3 in the eighth.
With two out in the bottom half and their ace's arm hanging by a thread, the Braves needed to end it. Walker singed to right field and gave way to Whiteley as the potential game-winning pinch-runner. Sandifer reached on an error. The current Springfield College men's basketball guard then beat the throw on a potential fielder's choice off Cooney's bat.
That set up McNeice's walk-off heroics. The Braves Western Mass. winning quarterback and football league MVP let his star running back score one more time and sent the Braves to Fitton for the state title game.
Now, the majority of those players have graduated and moved on to new things. Similarly, I joined The Berkshire Eagle around the same time many were starting college.
A lot changed in 2017, but it's a year and that's a team I'll never forget.
Mike Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CLNS_Walsh on Twitter and 413-496-6240.
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