By Tris Wykes

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Hartford High freshman Zach Johnson made his varsity pitching debut an outing to remember Saturday night, allowing no hits or runs during a four-inning start that led to the Hurricanes’ 6-1 defeat of Rutland at the Maxfield Sports Complex. 

Johnson, who had previously played shortstop for Hartford’s varsity, had only pitched at the JV level this spring. However, he looked anything but callow while striking out two Raiders and walking five as the Hurricanes improved to 7-0.

Hartford High freshman Zach Johnson delivers against Rutland. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Johnson threw 66 pitches but needed only four of them to retire the side during the second inning and seven to sit the visitors down during the third.

“Honestly, we were expecting that,” said interim Hartford coach Kris Keelty. “He’s very poised for a ninth-grader and we knew he could throw strikes. I told him to give me three innings and he gave us four, because his second and third were so remarkably short.”

Johnson, who also contributed a pair of singles while hitting in the home order’s ninth slot, threw 27 pitches during the first inning and 28 during the fourth. He was followed by relievers Macin Gaudette and Cam Tucker, the latter surrendering the Raiders’ run during the seventh inning.

“I’ve been very impressed with him,” Keelty said of Johnson. “He doesn’t play or conduct himself like a freshman. If we can get four good years out of him, it will be huge for the program.”

Hartford High’s Zach Johnson throws a second-inning pitch. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Hartford reached the 2016 and 2017 state semifinals with teams featuring future college athletes such as Tyler Hamilton, Jordy Allard, Hunter Perkins and Codi Smith. However, the program endured losing seasons in 2018 and 2019 and was caught off-guard earlier this month when 18-year head coach Jarod Grassi resigned.

A new era has suddenly dawned, with Keelty and assistant Bill Vielleux at the helm. The instructions have been clear: throw strikes, play defense and plug away at the plate.

“Throwing strikes and challenging hitters is my priority as coach,” Keelty said. “After the two-year layoff, hitters aren’t sharp, especially with off-speed pitches.”

The Hurricanes don’t have any stars but senior Alex Bushway excels as the team’s No. 1 pitcher and at shortstop. Classmate and center fielder Jacob Dwinell is a three-sport athlete who brings speed and outspoken confidence. Throw in junior Colin Vielleux as the No. 2 hurler and strong supporting cast and Hartford’s whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

“Our 2016 team was far more talented and it had four or five players who were probably better than anyone on our current roster,” said Keelty, who’s in his 17th season with the program. “But right now, we’re executing very well as a team.

Hartford High first base coach Dick Grassi is in his 21st season with the Hurricanes. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

“I’m still waiting for the bats to come around and we’ve struggled against strong pitchers, but we take advantage of mistakes and we scrape together runs.”

Dwinell had two singles and a double, Colin Vielleux had two singles and Bushway had a double. Hartford, a Division II team, scored two runs each during the first, second and fourth innings against Division I Rutland (1-6). The Hurricanes host Division III Green Mountain (3-5) on Monday night.

Notes: Rutland features a memorable moniker with shortstop Tyler Weatherhogg… Lebanon resident and Dartmouth College graduate Dave Chapin was one of the game’s two umpires, working the plate… Dwinell, uttering dugout chatter when a pitch drifted away from a batting teammate: “Leave that outside, like a bad dog!”… About a dozen Hartford students stood on bleachers down the third-base line, cheering and jumping around after various plays. Asked Rutland coach Geoff Bloomeer: “Is it always like this or is it just for us?”

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Hartford High first baseman Colin Vielleux catches a pop-up. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.