CHESTER, Vt. – Matt McCarthy is the Chester recreation director. He has his hand deep in the town’s baseball pie. When the varsity baseball position came open at Green Mountain a year ago, he decided to give it a try. He has not looked back since.
When I inquired about what he expected this season to look like, McCarthy said, “I thought if the kids did what they are really capable of, we could be good. The veterans have executed, the young kids have stepped up, so even though I was in the middle of the road about it for a while, they have really done what they are capable of.”
One of the reasons McCarthy was in the middle of the road was because so many young athletes needed to succeed at the varsity level for them to compete at the top. After some deep thinking, McCarthy admitted he thought “good” would be much better than a winning record. Being the second seed in the state was well above; it was really good. So was advancing to the Vermont State Division III title game. The 2018 baseball Chieftains actually achieved everything any sane person could ask for. Their title game opponent, defending champion Windsor, had a veteran cast returning. Although McCarthy’s club tread water with them for a while, the youngsters were outperformed eventually as any unbiased observer would readily had expected.
The main reason the Chieftains were so good this season starts with their pitching, and when a varsity team is truly five deep, they are serious contenders.
Most importantly, this year’s team really had two aces. McCarthy refers to them as A and 1A. The coach knew senior Tanner Bischofberger would be good (8-2/3.17 ERA/66 strikeouts in 53 innings), but he couldn’t have been sure about freshman Rex Hill (5-0/ 1.98 ERA/50 strikeouts in 35 1/3 innings and a save), who is 1A. The two combined for 36 walks and 116 strikeouts, an impressive ratio. The pitching numbers were stats including the play-offs.
Next comes McCarthy’s son, an eighth grader – yes you read that correctly – Dylan McCarthy, who had no record but gave the team a number of innings with crafty pitches, keeping other teams off balance. The Chieftains roster also had two other young relievers, sophomore Jacob Thomas “a power arm, who filled a big role” and freshman Ty Merrill, “who has an above average fastball and a curve.”
Senior leader Ryan McSally, “one of the best catchers in the state in DIII,” was behind the plate and hit .364 in the regular season with a team leading 19 RBIs. Freshman Sawyer Pippen (.297) manned first base and McCarthy said, “He has a power stroke.” Senior Josh Bodin and Thomas (.348) split time at second, with Bodin better offensively and Thomas the better glove man. Hill was the primary starting shortstop (.357) and McCarthy was the regular at third base, who moved over to short, when Hill pitched.
Can an eighth grader play at this level? McCarthy led the team in average (.422), hits and stolen bases and was second in RBIs. Anymore need to be said? In addition, Nick Davis played third when McCarthy moved over a spot.
The outfield had Davis in left most of the time with Merrill and Bischofberger (.324) playing center field, depending upon who was pitching. Bischofberger also could be found at short when Hill pitched. Yet another freshman, Skyler Klezos, yet another .300 hitter was regularly in right and once in a while manned leftfield. Freshman Ty Veysey was a utility back up on the squad. The hitting statistics mentioned were for the regular season only.
Record wise, the 2018 Chieftains should go down as one of the best teams in school history. Their 14-1 record speaks for itself. Comparing eras gets more difficult as each year passes. Although Green Mountain is not a perennial contender, they have had a good share of strong baseball teams over the years.
The Green and Gold have reached the finals eight times in school history. Seven of those appearances have come in Division III, while they had a Division II title game back in 1977 when they bowed to Harwood 3-2. They had back-to-back semi-final defeats in Division II in 1980 and ’81 bowing first to Missisquoi 6-1 and then in a tough-to-swallow 2-1 setback to Fair Haven in the ’81 season.
The six other Division III title losses came in 1971 Proctor 7-5, 1985 Northfield 9-1, 1999 Northfield 5-4, 2001 Northfield 5-1, 2003 Enosburgh 4-3, and 2006 Northfield 7-3.
Green Mountain has had some premier coaches over the years, which have kept them in the thick of the Division III title consideration over and over, including Jon Ratti, Joe Harned, Dave Farr, and now McCarthy joins the list with possibly more strong teams ahead of him to add to a collection of strong baseball nines.
In addition to the number of title contests, the Chieftains have eight more seasons in which they have advanced to the semi-finals prior to being eliminated.
Scott Renfo is a former Green Mountain baseball standout, who has coached a variety of sports in Chester and still teaches at the school. He looks fondly back at the school’s legacy, which includes his part in two Final Four appearances during his playing career.
He remembers being impressed by the play of Brian Albert when they were teammates in Renfro’s freshman year in the 1985 Northfield loss. That was part of a period of time when Green Mountain had a very impressive seven Final Four appearances in the decade of the ‘80s. Green Mountain had four more trips to that height in both the ‘90s and the first ten years of the new century. The last season at that level was 2009 when the team was eliminated in the semis by Leland & Gray 14-4.
Renfro is still waiting to see the school he has been a part of for more than 30 years have their overdue moment in the sun. He told me, “We have had some really good teams and you know it is tough to compare, but the one which still keeps coming back to me is 1999. They had a stacked line-up and had players on their bench who would have started for any team they played. We were the better team on the field that day, but we couldn’t find a way to win. Losing to Northfield that day was really sad and is the moment that stands out to me.”
Northfield has been a particularly big thorn in the Chieftains side over the years. They have defeated the Chester team seven times in the baseball version of the Final Four, four times in the final, and three in the semis.
Renfro hasn’t come close to giving up on one day seeing a team in his school’s uniform claiming the top prize. He told me, “We lose some important players from this year’s team, but this team was so young and these kids we have – and many of those coming up – are really into ball. I’m really excited about the next few years.”
Obviously, so is McCarthy, who was both confident, yet cautious as his team entered play-off action this spring. “Thetford may not have had a high seed, but we scouted them and knew the schedule they played and that they would be tough and they were that and then some.”
The Chieftains had the advantage of hosting the quarterfinal and semi-final rounds and their strong regular season probably paid off, especially in the opening game against Thetford.
“We had a very scary start falling behind 5-1, but I did have a good feeling when I looked around at the guys, and they still looked very confident. I remember thinking it was cool, they were in a good place,” McCarthy remembered. “Our pitching depth really paid off in this one as Rex Hill came on in relief in the third to pitch 5 innings and only gave up one run.”
By the time the third was over, Green Mountain had tied the game; and although the two teams would go back and forth another time, the eventual 8-6 victory brought about that 16th semi-final appearance.
Green Mountain saw McCarthy go two for three in the contest with three stolen bases. Bodin had a big two-run single in the third to tie things. McSally would single in a run, and Merrill had two hits in the triumph.
Randolph was next on the docket in the semis and the right arm of Bischofberger paced the effort. McCarthy said he led the way. It was one of his best efforts of the season as he hurled a complete game shutout, leading to a 6-0 victory.
The Chieftains had come away empty in the first inning, stranding a bases-loaded opportunity. As Bischofberger had their backs, the home team pushed across the only run they would need in the third inning. It was the eighth grader McCarthy who drew a base on balls and before anyone had time to think, he was across the plate.
McCarthy went to second courtesy of a wild pick-off throw, advanced to third on a ground out, and then the eighth grader stole home for the game’s first run. How awesome is that?
“That jump started everything,” Coach McCarthy told me. Before the game was history, Pippen would have an RBI single, Bodin a two-run double, McSally would have an important single to start a rally, and Hill contributed two important singles. To add to the cause, the Chieftains played good defensive, backing things up, while the Galloping Ghosts didn’t.
There were people all over Vermont who tabbed Windsor to repeat as Division III champions back in March before the first pitch of the season was thrown. The Yellow Jackets didn’t do a thing during their spring season schedule versus Division I and II competition to make anyone even think once about a different outcome. Every opposing coach in the tournament had dreams though that they could somehow find a way to upset them when no one else expected such an outcome.
“I thought we had to score first,” Coach McCarthy said, and that’s exactly what the Chieftains did. Jack ace Seth Balch somehow didn’t show his big game experience at the outset and was faced with control problems, allowing Green Mountain to take a 1-0 lead in the first. Balch walked three and hit McSally with a pitch to allow the game’s first run, giving McCarthy and his charges a chance to get excited. However, if the Chieftains could overcome a four-run deficit in the opener, the defending champs were capable of doing the same now.
Windsor tallied the equalizer in the first and then took the lead for good in the third, thanks to an unearned run, in a game that would see more errors and unearned runs and an eventual 10-3 Windsor title victory.
But Green Mountain stayed in the fight until the bottom of the fifth and with the Jacks up 3-1, Green Mountain plated one in the top of the fifth making the score 3-2, until those errors reared their head.
McCarthy wrapped things up by saying, “I thought we would need to play the near perfect game and we did for a while until our youngness kind of came out,” and his voice trailed off.
That youngness may have showed its age at the end, but what a contribution that youth made to a Green Mountain effort to pull off an upset for the ages.
I expect McCarthy is smiling now, all that youngness will be a year older next spring and for a few springs to come.