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Hope springs eternal for players, coaches on the first day of practice for the MIAA spring sports season

The members of Methuen's softball team, which went 21-5 in 2019 and finished as the Division 1 North champion and state runners-up, were eager to take their cuts in batting practice on Monday, the first day of practice for spring sports in Massachusetts following a 674-day hiatus.
The members of Methuen's softball team, which went 21-5 in 2019 and finished as the Division 1 North champion and state runners-up, were eager to take their cuts in batting practice on Monday, the first day of practice for spring sports in Massachusetts following a 674-day hiatus.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Bill O’Connell marveled at the competition level his Braintree baseball players showed during Monday’s season-opening practice.

On a sunny but windy afternoon at Braintree High, masked players hustled during baserunning drills, concentrated on form through each fielding repetition, and worked on their swings in the newly-implemented pitching machine in the batting cage.

The session officially marked the beginning of the spring sports season in Massachusetts after a 674-day hiatus.

“The level of competition was awesome today and it was fun to watch,” O’Connell said. “We tried to create competition in game-like situations and we’re having fun with it. It’s great to be back and the two-and-a-half hours just flew by. It was a lot fun.”

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Braintree High baseball coach Bill O'Connell (right) was thrilled by his team's turnout on the first day of spring practices. " I think everyone really senses that there are eight open jobs. We saw that today where everyone was working hard.” he said.
Braintree High baseball coach Bill O'Connell (right) was thrilled by his team's turnout on the first day of spring practices. " I think everyone really senses that there are eight open jobs. We saw that today where everyone was working hard.” he said.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

O’Connell, who led Braintree to Super 8 titles in 2015 and 2016, believes the rise in competition is directly linked to the coronavirus pandemic. After last year’s spring season was canceled, the Wamps return Jordan Gorham, a junior shortstop and pitcher who ranks as the team’s only player with varsity experience.

As a result, the annual Bay State Conference contenders have eight open spots to fill with three or four players competing for playing time at each position.

“These guys are legit being thrown into the fire,” O’Connell said. “We have kids who were in the eighth grade the last time we saw them or they were on the freshman field. I think everyone really senses that there are eight open jobs. We saw that today where everyone was working hard.”

Brian Lawton is one of the players vying for a full-time role at second base this spring for the Wamps. Lawton played on the freshman team, then made junior varsity as a sophomore. He was expected to make the varsity team last spring as a junior but the pandemic halted those plans.

Lawton still emailed prospective college coaches and had the chance to play for Braintree in the one-off Massachusetts Independent Baseball League over the summer. He knows the importance of this spring, which will be his only varsity season.

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“It kind of stinks because junior year is when you get your name out there and it was tough not having a high school season,” Lawton said. “I love baseball and I’m going to try and play in college. It feels great to be back and I’m going to give it all I can this year.”

The spring season will conclude with the first MIAA state tournament played since the pandemic hit days before the basketball and hockey state finals in March 2020. Braintree is set to play a 13-game Bay State Conference slate, followed by an eight-team single elimination BSC Tournament, and then the Division 1 state tournament, which could last until July 3.

“The months of May and June are going to be packed, but you couldn’t ask for a better scenario,” O’Connell said.

At Masconomet Regional, coach T.J. Baril arrived for tryouts and players were already on the field stretching out and getting loose. Baril said the energy level was high as Masco utilized both of its fields and batting tunnels to hit, throw, and hold a simulated scrimmage.

About 50 players tried out Monday and Baril said the late-April start allowed Masco to be outdoors on Day One for the first time in years.

“It was really a great day and I can count on one hand how many days we’ve been able to be outdoors for a tryout in the last 20 years,” Baril said. “Being outdoors and [to] get that much work in was phenomenal. Our guys were excited, early, and engaged. It was cool to be back out on the field.”

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Unlike Braintree, Masco had a number of key underclassmen contribute on the 2019 team. They are now the leaders of the program as upperclassmen. The Chieftains will play a 17-game schedule in the Northeastern Conference and also have a nonleague matchup against St. Mary’s scheduled.

“We plan on having a successful season and hope to participate in the state tournament,” Baril said.

On the first day of spring tryouts, the 2019 Division 1 North champion Methuen girls' softball team didn't waste any time getting warmed up.
On the first day of spring tryouts, the 2019 Division 1 North champion Methuen girls' softball team didn't waste any time getting warmed up.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

. . .

Some 674 days since falling in the Division 1 state final against Wachusett, Methuen softball coach Jason Smith said he spent his team’s first practice Monday reminding the Rangers they are still defending sectional champions and state runners-up.

“It felt right,” Smith said upon the return to the diamond after the 2020 season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Rangers, who went 21-5 in 2019, return Stephanie Tardugno, the only starter from the top team in Eastern Mass. Smith said he believes Tardugno, who will play college softball at Saint Anselm, will move from center field to shortstop this season. Tardugno is one of Methuen’s three captains along with senior Emily Spina, who was a backup outfielder in 2019, and junior Avry Nelson, the team’s backup catcher two years ago.

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. . .

Daggett Morse spent seven years as an assistant for the boys’ lacrosse program at Medfield before finally earning his shot to become head coach at Xaverian. But before he could draw up his plans for the first month of practice last March, the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to any spring sports. More than 12 months later, Morse finally took the field with his full team for the first time and ran tryouts Monday evening under the lights at the Hawk Bowl.

“It’s great to have everybody back at once,” Morse said. “While the wait wasn’t so great through Fall II [season], you can’t beat the weather. It’s a lot better than it would have been in late March.”

The Catholic Conference allowed for 12 out-of-season practices last fall and Morse opened training to any and all athletes. But several key players were occupied playing or preparing for other sports, so Monday was the first time he could fully evaluate his roster.

The verdict? Another strong Hawks team that is ready to compete for a Division 1 state title.

“Our senior class is definitely really hungry,” Morse said. “Those guys would have made names for themselves last year. Now there’s a lot of buzz with the state tournament and they want to work toward that goal. We’ll see how it shakes out. It’s going to be an interesting season with the condensed timeline, and basically only a conference schedule, but given the state of the Catholic Conference, we’ll face the iron right away and see where we stand.”

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Xaverian opens next Thursday at 7 p.m. against Longmeadow, one of two non-conference games the Hawks were able to schedule.

. . .

Defending Division 1 state champion Notre Dame (Hingham) girls’ lacrosse returned to the field for the first time since 2019. Day One of tryouts was filled with a blend of veterans and newcomers hoping to cement their spot on the roster of a perennial power. The Cougars bring back several players from their title team but will also rely on many up-and-coming stars as they try to repeat.

Correspondents Trevor Hass, Jake Levin, and Nate Weitzer also contributed.