Maybe Connor Columbus knew what was coming this season. Maybe that is how he got through everything that came before.
Something must explain how the Braintree High junior outlasted a broken collarbone his freshman year with a smile, and earned a reputation for walking away from bad at-bats with an upbeat demeanor while hitting .194 last season.
Maybe he kept telling himself that one day he would top the Bay State Conference in batting average. Maybe he knew he would lead his Wamps to the final of the inaugural Super 8 baseball tournament, and depart with the tournament record for RBIs. Maybe he even was sure that he would catch the eye of college scouts along the way.
If he did know, he never alerted teammate Gino LaRossa , who has played with Columbus for 10 years.
“If you told me when he was sophomore that he’d do this as a junior — I knew he was going to be a great player,’’ LaRossa said, “but I didn’t know he’d be the MVP of our team this year.
“He opened a lot of eyes.”
No, Columbus probably could not see into the future. Instead, he gave up other extracurricular activities last fall and winter and went to the batting cage five times per week with the sole hope of getting better. When the season started, the 5-foot-8 third baseman continued giving.
Throughout the regular season, Columbus provided an offensive lift to a team led by a trio of pitching aces: senior Matt Bickford , junior Bobby McNiff , and sophomore Scott Creedon .
He finished the year hitting a conference-best .434, 21 points better than Milton High’s Colin McCabe .
Columbus also continued to give up his body, tallying 11 hit-by-pitches during the season. He will do anything to get on base.
His contributions helped Braintree go 17-3 and earn the fifth seed in the MIAA’s first Division 1A tournament for baseball, modeled after hockey’s Super 8 playoffs.
In the tournament opener against Silver Lake Regional, the Wamps fell, 8-3.
Still, the Super 8’s double-elimination format gave Braintree life, and a sixth-inning home run from Columbus helped give the team hope and confidence going forward. After struggling through a slump over the final quarter of the season, Columbus signaled with his bomb that the slugger was back.
The Wamps stayed alive with an 11-5 win over Catholic Memorial, then faced second-seeded St. John’s Prep in another elimination game just a day later.
This time, Columbus hit a two-run blast in the seventh inning that gave Braintree a four-run cushion, and allowed the team to breathe a little easier, Bickford said. The Wamps ended up needing all of it in a 5-4 victory.
“Knocking off a second Catholic Conference school, that was big for us from a program standpoint,” Braintree coach Bill O’Connell said.
“It was an amazing feeling for our team to do that,” Columbus said. “To beat them showed public schools have the ability to do anything.”
But Columbus, Bickford, LaRossa, and O’Connell all said their best win in the Super 8 tourney did not come until the following week. After beating Lincoln-Sudbury Regional, the Wamps faced Bridgewater-Raynham Regional, the team that beat them, 12-0, in last year’s Division 1 South sectional en route to the state title.
The rematch was considered unlikely; Bridgewater-Raynham was not expected to drop down to the loser’s bracket, and the Wamps were not supposed to still be alive.
A big seventh inning lifted Braintree to a 9-2 victory last Sunday, completing its “Revenge Tour’’ over teams that the Wamps had struggled against in the past.
The late game against the Trojans had Braintree taking the field for the Division 1A final less than 24 hours later, and the in-conference matchup against the tourney’s top seed, Newton North High, meant making the switch from aluminum back to wooden bats.
Braintree had dealt Newton North its lone loss during the regular season, but the Wamps started slow and never recovered in losing the title game, 6-2, on Monday.
In the loss, Columbus knocked in his tournament-high seventh run. And he did it all with a dislocated finger that he hurt sliding into second base against Silver Lake. You just would not have known about it from his smile.
“His finger was swollen up to where he couldn’t get his finger around the bat,” LaRossa said. “It was really impressive to see him put up those numbers playing with nine fingers.”
After spending 10 days watching Braintree Little Leaguers file into the games and ask his players for autographs, O’Connell said, the team’s postseason success will pay off for years to come.
The coach also said Columbus should see long-term gains from his hot stretch as well.
“He emerged as one of the elite players in the state,” O’Connell said. “He really put himself on the map.”
After his breakout season, Columbus now sees a potential future in a Division 1 collegiate program; before, there were only dreams.
“The goal is to go Division 1,” Columbus said. “After this season . . . with all the scouts at our games, I think it could happen.”
Nicholson kept focus for Rockland High squad
Rockland High baseball coach Nick Liquori does not know how things would have gone if Matt Nicholson were not on his squad this spring. But next year he is going to find out.
Rockland finished the season 8-12, but Liquori believes it would have been worse had it not been for his 6-foot-3 senior pitcher and outfielder. Despite the team’s struggles, Nicholson was named the South Shore League’s MVP after batting .508 with 16 RBIs. The Merrimack College recruit also was the league’s MVP in basketball last winter.
“He is a man among boys,” Liquori said.
The coach added that what impressed him most this season was Nicholson’s demeanor.
After Nicholson signed his commitment letter to Merrimack in November, Liquori said, “it would have been very easy for him to coast through this season. But he didn’t. He was out there diving for balls in center field and doing things in the locker room and the dugout that kept us together as a team.”