By Tris Wykes
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – The Hartford High baseball team produced its first undefeated regular season since 1936 on Saturday night, rallying to beat visiting Otter Valley, 11-7, at Dick Grassi Field.
A seven-run fifth inning propelled the Hurricanes (14-0) past the Otters (7-8) and into the history books. What exactly awaits them in next week’s Vermont Division II playoffs is unclear.
Hartford began the weekend thinking that being the 16-team division’s top-seeded team in a 15-team postseason draw would earn a first-round bye. It was assumed by interim coach Kris Keelty and others that Stratton Mountain (3-1) wouldn’t enter the playoffs because it hadn’t played enough games.
By Saturday afternoon, however, the coach said, word spread that Stratton will be allowed in, creating a 16-team tournament and requiring the Hurricanes to host a first-round game on Tuesday or Wednesday.
The Stratton development changed Hartford’s pitching approach. The original plan was to go with senior Cam Tucker to start and then bring in nominal No. 2 starter Colin Vielleux to finish the game. But with a possible first-round contest materializing, Keelty decided to start freshman Zach Johnson and follow him with Tucker and then Vielleux.
“We had to adjust on the fly because we found out around 4 p.m. today that we might have to play in the first round,” Keelty said. “We still don’t really know officially. We’re under the impression we’re going to have to play Lamoille, so we used Colin less, in case we need him Tuesday.”
Johnson allowed two hits and three runs, two of them earned, in two-plus innings of work. The righthander struck out two Otters, walked four and hit one. His team led, 4-3, after three innings. The Otters struck Tucker for four runs, three of them earned, during the fourth frame and led, 7-4, entering the fifth. That’s when the wheels suddenly came off the visitors’ bus.
Hartford parlayed six hits, three Otter Valley errors, a hit batsman and several extra-base hits that dropped into empty areas to score seven runs and effectively end the game.
Vielleux pitched the fifth, sixth and seventh innings and allowed one hit and no runs. He induced two groundouts and struck out six opponents, one of them on a play during which the hitter reached first after a dropped third strike. That glitch allowed the righthander to strike out four Otters during the seventh inning.
“There weren’t a ton of hard-hit balls tonight,” Keelty said. “But we have speed and we use it to our advantage. We got some good reads out of some of those bloop hits. It’s been the way we’ve done it all year.”
Hartford had 13 hits. Jacob Dwinell and Aidan Brooks each had a single and a triple and Danny and Alex Bushway and Johnson each had two singles.
Hartford and its supporters are bursting at the seams with optimism, which makes Keelty wary.
“It was a long road and some lucky breaks to get where we are now,” the coach said. “We had some close games that could have gone either way.
“I think (overconfidence) is natural when you’re dealing with kids at this age and it’s certainly something myself and the coaches are cognizant of. We can’t talk about the quarterfinals or the finals, our next job is our next game and we have to win that or we don’t get another game.”
Notes: Hartford athletic director Jeff Moreno texted that Hartford’s 1935 baseball team was 16-0, followed by a 17-0 squad a year later. They were part of a 37-game winning streak that was ended by Hanover during the second game of 1937… Moreno said before Saturday’s game that no decision has been made regarding who will coach the Hurricanes next season. Keelty was an assistant for 17 years before getting the head job on an interim basis midseason this spring after longtime boss Jarod Grassi resigned. The Dartmouth College financial assistant said he will throw his hat in the ring… Hartford graduates seniors Alex and Danny Bushway, Nick Martin, Brooks, Tucker and Dwinell.
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