There are championships, and then there are championships! When one is at a loss for words, it is best to turn to someone else. Black River Baseball Coach Jim O’Neil told me, “It definitely was a fairytale ending. You couldn’t have written a better script.”
He is absolutely right. There is this small town in Vermont with historic athletic pride that was fielding possibly its final competitive baseball team. Their state had decided that their school must either consolidate with another district or just simply close its doors. Last spring, the school’s baseball team had been eliminated by Danville 17-0 in the semifinals. Danville lost some of last year’s core, and this edition of the Presidents wanted one more crack at them. It was a driving force all spring.
But then there was Proctor also standing in the way. The Presidents defeated Proctor twice during the regular season, but their senior ace, Joe Valero, had not pitched in either of those games. Danville, Proctor, Black River closing soon – all these factors were a mountain to overcome. It was a mountain to climb.
Then there was one more little item to contend with. Vermont high school baseball has a pitch count. Black River ace Zach Paul was also an important piece of this equation. O’Neil’s team had pitching depth, but Paul was a necessary ingredient. Days of rest had to be contended with. Could Paul be saved with a lower pitch count and get by in the semis, or would the schedule allow enough rest to allow him to pitch in both? The mountain was getting steeper by the moment.
However, don’t forget people in Ludlow, and the surrounding communities that make up Black River High School, know mountains well. They have lived with the slopes of Okemo as part of their upbringing. They could find a way to overcome any and all of these obstacles.
Coach O’Neil had a group of players, including six seniors, whom he was particularly close to. They had spent hours of time together, many even before the athletes were high schoolers. O’Neil let it be known. “This was a great group of players, who mean a lot more to me more than baseball players.”
Black River overcame all the hurdles. They climbed the mountain known as Vermont Division IV Baseball and they now stand proudly at the top. O’Neil juggled his pitching as perfectly as he could and the powers that be set a schedule that worked just fine. The Presidents met what considered to be their toughest hurdle, Proctor, in the semifinals and eliminated them 10-3 in a game much closer than the final score indicates – leaving just one more hurdle.
Obviously, Danville was the perfect opponent for the final step. The numbers 17-0 are not difficult to forget, and this group of athletes had a bond that would plunge them straight ahead into the task at hand. Three runs were scored in the first inning, and they never looked back. The championship was passed to the hands of a community, which truly deserved such a fate.
“Don’t get carried away with your story and overlook those kids who worked so hard for a long time to win this,” said a Ludlow fan who likes fairytales but demanded to give credit where credit was due. Taking that a step further, he said, “And don’t forget to give credit to Jim and the job he has done here for years and years. He always gets the most out of everybody and has the knack of putting players in the right spot. He has done that for years.”
It should come as a surprise to no one that the Black River community turned out at Burlington’s Centennial Field en masse for this one. O’Neil said, “We have had tremendous crowds and support all season, but it was great to see after the Division I crowd filed out our fans just take over those seats and how they could enjoy the venue and help create the atmosphere, which was so special. One thing that was interesting. We have been to the title game a number of times before. When we sit in the third base dugout, we lose. Every time we sit on the first base side, we win.”
The final score of 10-1 in the title contest was emphatic. So was O’Neil’s tenure at the helm of the Presidents. He has announced he is stepping down from his coaching position. Next year, after Black River closes its doors, he will walk away from teaching altogether. “I gave up baseball this year because it would have been too much for me to finish them both at the same time.”
O’Neil seems fated to have been sent Black River’s way. Upon graduating from Central Connecticut, he was looking for a teaching job. His interview for a one-year position was in close proximity to where his parents had bought property. His interview was also of fairytale fashion. “It was conducted at Fox Run, as we played a round of golf. I impressed them enough that they decided to hire me after we played,” Coach said.
I asked O’Neil if he had been laying on the beach back home in Lyme, Conn., during his late high school or college years, how he would have dreamed his life would turn out? He said, “This would have been it. I could not have had a better career and life. To have taught here for 30 years is a dream come true.”
By the way, it took more fairytale stuff. Legend goes, that the strong well-liked teacher who took a leave of absence for a year that O’Neil replaced her was close to the end of her teaching career, but she was looking to teach another year or so. After she saw what Jim brought to the community, she visited him one day near the end of the school year and told him she was stepping aside so he could stay at Black River. “That was a special moment,” O’Neil told me.
One more thing. Some of us like to avoid the number 13. Not Jim O’Neil who says, “That’s my lucky number. My father was born on the 13th; both my children wore number 13. They both won state titles wearing that number, and this was our 13th win,” referring to the title game.
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