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Humbled and focused, Ashland determined to make a title run in inaugural MIBL playoffs

Ashland manager Jake Obid points to a midseason matchup against Canton as a turning point of the season for his club in the inaugural season of the U19 Massachusetts Independent Baseball League.

Although Ashland entered the matchup atop the standings, Obid witnessed complacency for the first time all summer in a sloppy 14-7 win that featured careless errors and base-running blunders.

So post game, hoping to provide a wake-up call and prevent the poor play from continuing, the 21-year-old manager summoned his team for a series of outfield sprints before convening for a 30-minute conversation to deliver a message — that is not the kind of team we want to be.

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Jackson Hornung, Ashland’s offensive leader, called the postgame sprints the best thing to happen all summer. With a renewed focus for the stretch run, Ashland rattled off eight straight wins, highlighted by Sunday’s 7-5 victory over second-place Medfield to clinch the regular season title.

At 14-1, Ashland will be the top seed in the 16-team MIBL playoffs, which open Thursday night with four double elimination pool-play pods at the sites of the higher seeds. The four winners of each pod will then play next week for the league championship, a title Ashland is eager to win after falling to Lawrence in last year’s American Legion state championship.

“After that Canton game, he made us realize that anyone can beat us if we get complacent,” said Hornung, a 2019 Ashland High graduate who plays baseball at Skidmore College. “Having him run us humbled everyone, and we realized we needed to compete every game. It was a great learning experience for all of us.”

With 10 returning players from last year’s team, Obid felt like this year’s squad could have made a run to the Legion World Series had the season not been cancelled in April due to COVID-19. Ashland, which annually plays in Legion District 5, did not have a league to play in this summer until Obid reached out to MIBL co-founders Cam Fox and Steve Maze on Twitter, asking to join their one-off league made up of District 6 teams.

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Ashland quickly made its presence known, knocking off perennial power Braintree, 4-0, in the fourth game of the season. With Hornung (.471 batting average, 2 HRs, 16 RBIs), outfielder Nate Calabrese (.620 ave,), and Dom Cavanagh powering the lineup, and ace Owen Radcliffe (4-0, 1.48 ERA) leading the rotation, Ashland averaged 8.5 runs per game, outscoring foes 131-51 during the regular season.

“Our goal after last summer was to not only win the state championship, but to make a run at the World Series,” said Obid, who is entering his senior year at UMass Amherst.

“I don’t think there is one strength that identifies us as a group, it really depends on the day. But one through nine, I don’t think there’s any easy out. Our lineup can mash.”

Obid, a Holliston resident, played three seasons for Post 77 before becoming the manager last summer. In Obid’s last season as a player, he was teammates with Hornung, who believes the familiarity within the program gives the team a chemistry boost and is a major reason for the recent success.

After each Ashland win, Obid hands the game MVP a framed picture of former player Andrew Sternick — whom the manager dubbed the ultimate glue guy — and then the team poses for a photo that is posted on Twitter. The tradition began last summer when Obid gave the MVP a mini sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi. But the team buried Gandhi at the of the summer, making way for Sternick’s picture as the new prize.

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Entering the playoffs, Ashland is approaching it as a new season in which every team starts 0-0. Braintree, Medfield, Quincy, Franklin, and Milton — the only team to beat Post 77 this summer — are the other top contenders.

For Hornung, who accumulated the most career hits in Ashland Legion history, concluding his four-year career with an MIBL Championship would be a special ending.

“It would mean the world to me,” said Hornung. “We’ve all come so close to winning championships with this group and to be able to share that with everyone would be a great experience.”

Players to watch in the tourney

OF Nick Calabrese, Ashland — The lefthanded hitter from Holliston paced Ashland’s potent offensive attack, hitting .623 with a 1.282 OPS and 12 RBIs.

1B/P Joe Fischer, Canton — The Avon High grad hit .424 with a pair of home runs while notching three wins and a 2.07 ERA. He will attend Westfield State.

OF Aidan Hawley, Natick — The Merrimack commit slashed .409/.434/.705 with a pair of home runs and 10 RBIs for 8-6 Natick.

P/OF Will Pacheco, Franklin — The ace of Franklin’s Super 8 team last spring, the righthander compiled a 3.20 ERA in 18 innings this summer and posted a team-best .345 average and 10 RBIs at the plate. He will play baseball at Assumption College.

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P Kyle Roche, Braintree — With a fastball that reaches the upper 80s, the righthander dominated opposing hitters this summer, tossing 21 scoreless innings with 42 strikeouts. The Braintree High grad will continue his baseball career at Franklin Pierce.

SS Nick Sheehan, Medfield — The explosive leadoff hitter from Medway batted .403 with 18 runs, 21 stolen bases, and six doubles for the runnerup squad. He will play at Southern New Hampshire.

P Kevin Zarnoch, Hyde Park — A rising sophomore at Worcester State, the Boston Latin alum posted a 1.28 ERA in 28 innings while sporting a 31:4 strikeout to walk ratio.

Thursday’s playoff schedule

Pod 1 (at Roberts MS, Holliston)

Hyde Park vs Walpole, 5 p.m.; Kingston vs Ashland, 8 p.m.

Pod 2 (at Braintree HS)

Weymouth vs Natick, 12 p.m.; Westwood vs Braintree, 7 p.m

Pod 3 (at Franklin HS)

Dedham vs Medfield, 5 p.m.; Canton vs Franklin, 8 p.m.

Pod 4 (at Adams Field, Quincy)

Needham vs Milton, 5 p.m.; Norwood vs Quincy, 8 p.m.