Like it or not, there’s change coming to the American Legion baseball playoff format in Massachusetts. This summer, the winner of the end-of-the-season state tournament will not advance to the Northeast Regional or have a chance at the Legion World Series.
Instead, there will be a new single-game elimination tournament held July 16-18 for the top teams in each of the state’s eight districts, with the winner advancing to the Northeast Regional in early August. The semifinals and finals will be played at Worcester Academy, and at the conclusion of the new tournament, the teams will resume their regular seasons as scheduled.
The winner of what’s being referred to as the “national-bound” tournament will be the only team not eligible for the traditional statewide tournament, held Aug. 4-8.
Dick Paster , longtime manager of Westwood’s American Legion Post 320 team and the vice chairman of the state’s American Legion Athletic Committee, said the impetus for the change was that teams were being forced to schedule too many games into the short window between the end of the MIAA high school tournaments and the start of the Legion’s national tournament. As a result, the number of Legion games was down and the quality of play was suffering.
“The high school tournament got a little longer, the national tournament, the World Series, they moved that up, so we had to declare our winner earlier and start later, and we just got caught between a rock and a hard place,” Paster said.
“We feel as though this will give everybody an opportunity to play baseball right through the end of July. Between regular-season games, exhibition games and playoffs, teams can easily play 30-some-odd games. We feel that that’s going to be a good summer program, and will be a flashback to the way the American Legion program operated up until about a dozen years ago.”
The new extended schedule also means pitchers can be used more often, and that teams will have more flexibility with make-up dates for games that have been rained out.
“It creates a lot of buzz and a lot more baseball,” said Sudbury Post 191 manager Len Noce . “It’s going to be really exciting because if you’ve got a good team, you’ve got a crack at that first [national-bound] tournament, and if you lose you can still get back into the the sectionals and then the state championship. It’s very exciting.”
Framingham Post 74 manager Bunkie Smith said the new format is “great.”
“When I told my players about it, they said, ‘Oh, we have a chance to play more games?’ It gives them a couple of things to shoot for: regionals, then our own playoffs, and states.”
There is a concern, however, that holding the national qualifier midway through the regular season will make it difficult for districts to determine their best team.
Districts 5 and 6 will hold a one-game playoff between the top teams in their two divisions to determine which clubs will move on to the July tourney. District 4 will hold a single-elimination tournament between its top six teams to determine its representative.
“It is a little odd for us to have to decide halfway through the season who our best team is and who will best represent our zone,” said Hudson Post 100 coach Blair Brissette , whose team hosted the state tournament last season. “I know, from our standpoint last year, we kind of peaked at the end of the season. I would hate for any team to get out to a slow start and miss out on that opportunity, and end up being the best team in the zone.”
Another issue with the new format: There are some who think that the end-of-the-summer state tournament has lost some of its prestige because it no longer sends its winner to the Northeast Regional.
Brissette said he isn’t sure Hudson will want to host in the future because the tournament may no longer be an attractive draw for players or fans. But he added that it’s impossible to say how people will react to the new format since it’s never been done before.
“What we’ve asked everybody to do is try it,” Paster said. “Keep an open mind, and let’s see how it works out.”
Difficult end for Assabet Valley
Less than 24 hours after the Assabet Valley Regional Tech girls’ softball team lost in the Division 3 state semifinals, coach Mike O'Brien had difficulty putting his emotions into words.
He was hired as the head coach four years ago and now feels an inextricable link between himself and his seniors. He said he wished he could have had the opportunity to coach them past their 6-5, extra-inning loss to Turners Falls last week.
“It's a tough one to swallow,” O'Brien said. “Not just because we lost. The team we had this past year was a really special team, especially the seniors.”
Three of those seniors — outfielders Jackie Orangio and Meg McMahon, and first baseman Tara Walsh — were four-year players. When they arrived with O’Brien, they represented change. The team was 8-9 the year prior, and O’Brien brought with him a new emphasis on mental toughness.
Four years later, the Aztecs (20-2) had won their first Colonial League title since 1989 and first-ever State Vocational Tournament championship. At one point this season, the team won 19 games in a row. Throughout, they relied on their speed and savvy play.
“We had a team motto that we were all little bunny rabbits,” O’Brien said. “Some of the teams we played against made us look like Little Leaguers. We were tiny. Then all of a sudden we slap-hit, we base-hit, double, single, we take the extra base. We do the little things that win ball games.”
Orangio epitomized the team’s style, stealing 35 bases in 37 attempts this season. Senior catcher Chelsea Campana and outfielder Laurie DeMars also played key roles in Assabet’s unprecedented season.
Both of the team’s pitchers, junior Brenna Boucher (13-2) and freshman Maddy Parmenter (7-0), will be back next season. But less than one day after his team’s final game, O’Brien wouldn’t look ahead. The Aztecs’ memorable year was still too fresh in his mind.
“We’re obviously very proud of this team,” he said.
Seniors leadership paces Belmont Hill
Belmont Hill (16-5) earned the Independent School League baseball title this season on the strength of its talented senior class.
Five earned first team All-ISL honors: infielder Jake Levine (Brown University commit) from Newton, outfielder Drew Burgard (Claremont McKenna College) from Lexington, catcher Dave Cunningham (Amherst College) from Arlington, pitcher Sean Gustin (College of the Holy Cross) from Stoneham, and pitcher Eric Oberg (Dartmouth College) from Wellesley. Junior pitcher Keelan Smithers from Framingham was also named to the first team All-ISL.