NEW BEDFORD — The Billerica Post 268 American Legion baseball team had never won a state championship — not even when two-time Cy Young award winner and Billerica native Tom Glavine blazed fastballs past opposing hitters in 1984.
But this season, behind Glavine-like performances from pitchers Walker O’Connor (9-0) and Soren Hanson (7-0), Post 268 cruised to a 24-3 record and the first Legion state championship in town history.
On Wednesday, O’Connor tossed a gem, striking out 10 batters as Billerica beat Northbridge Post 343 11-0 (5 innings) in the Mass. Legion Intrastate Championship game.
“It’s huge, it’s awesome,” O’Connor said. Coach Jeff Paquette and assistant coaches Richard and Andy Gearin and Jay Cantwell, “they’re one of the best coaching staffs around, so I’m glad I could do it for them.”
Likewise, Paquette praised the dominant pitching O’Connor and Hanson delivered throughout the season.
“We got two aces on the pitching staff who are almost a guaranteed win every time they take the mound, and you don’t really find that at this level,” Paquette said. “Usually you ride the shoulders of one guy, but to have [two] is incredible.”
However, if it wasn’t for a game between Bridgton Academy and Belmont Hill April 20, Post 268 might not have had such aces.
O’Connor, who played at Bridgton after graduating from Malden Catholic, talked Hanson, then at Belmont Hill, into coming back to the team he played for in 2010.
“I knew I was coming back, and I knew we were going to have a good team if other kids came back,” O’Connor said. “We talked about it after our game [in April] and he said he was coming back.”
Hanson, a 6-foot-1 pitcher and third baseman, played with the North East Rays last season.
But the decision to come back for one more summer with Post 286 was an easy one.
“When I found out Walker was coming back, I knew we could do some damage on the mound,” Hanson said. “It was going through our minds the whole time that we could have some success if we threw well, so that was a big reason for coming back.”
While Paquette welcomed back one of his star players to the club, he uncovered another in centerfielder Matt Clifford.
“Clifford’s a huge catalyst for us,” Paquette said. “When he gets going, his stuff is contagious and guys just feed off of him, and we’ll put together six or seven hits and four or five runs an inning, and we just keep rolling.”
Clifford, a standout baseball and football player at Billerica, hit .380 in the leadoff spot for Post 268, sparking an offense that consistently scored double-digit runs.
“I led off for high school and I’m used to it now, I love leading off,” Clifford said.
Next season, while Paquette will be without O’Connor and Hanson, he’s embracing the return of his centerfielder.
“To have your leadoff guy come back, that’s hitting nearly .400, that’s huge” Paquette said. “He had nearly 15 stolen bases this year. too. You can build a club around a guy like that.”
Tim Cashman gives Newburyport a lift
The thought of being a starting pitcher for the Newburyport Post 150 Legion team never even crossed Tim Cashman’s mind.
The 5-foot-10 righthander battled elbow injuries since playing at Triton Regional High School, and after pitching 43 innings as the number two starter at Bunker Hill Community College, he was poised for a season out of the bullpen.
But when coach Tim Southall lost pitchers Ryan O’Connor (Bentley) and Coastal Carolina-bound Alex Minesteri to injuries, he called on Cashman, a three-year veteran, to fill the void in the rotation.
Cashman “had a great year at Bunker Hill, and we talked about moving him into the starting rotation, and he’s been a frontline starter the whole year,” Southall said. “He really stepped right in. He just goes out there and pounds the strike zone and nobody hits him hard.”
Cashman’s efforts never wavered, even as he topped the 80-inning plateau for the calendar year, and his 7-0 record helped spark Newburyport’s run to the quarterfinals of the Intrastate Legion tournament.
“It was tough because I had a lot of innings in my arm,” Cashman said. “I just planned on being a relief guy. Getting late into games was tough, but once my arm strengthened it was easier.”
After Newburyport lost to Hyde Park, 2-1, last Saturday in the opening round of the state tournament in New Bedford, Cashman helped Post 150 stave off elimination.
He needed just 47 pitches to spin five innings of shutout baseball, allowing just one hit as Newburyport eliminated South Attleboro, 7-2.
“I knew I had to get ahead and not let [South Attleboro] get to a big lead,” Cashman said after Sunday’s win. “We lost [to Hyde Park] on a couple of bleeding hits, so we knew we had to take this game.”
“We knew they swung a lot, so I just threw it over the plate and let them hit it, and they hit a lot on the ground and we made the plays, so it worked out nice for me to keep my pitch count down.”
After Post 150’s convincing win over South Attleboro, Newburyport (23-3) was eliminated Monday after a 5-3 loss to New Bedford.
“There are a lot of good teams down here, but the team is disappointed because we felt we could’ve played better,” Southall said. “I’m very happy with the season. All in all it’s been a great year.”
Cashman didn’t pitch, but he turned in a 3 for 4 performance at the plate, with an RBI and a run scored.
“Timmy had a great day,” Southall said. “He had a great season. He’s just been able to go out and give a strong performance. He gets better every year and we’ve really appreciated his efforts.”