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Division III Baseball

After 57 years, the wait is over

  • The Conant baseball team defeated Laconia 5-3 in the Division III semifinals on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Tim Goodwin)
  • The Conant baseball team defeated Laconia 5-3 in the Division III semifinals on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. <br/><br/>(Staff photo by Tim Goodwin)

This was the year.

It had to be the year that Conant baseball won it all. With nine seniors and the memories of coming so close last season still fresh in their minds, the only acceptable outcome was a state championship.

And after surviving a couple scares during their playoff run, fifth-seeded Conant (16-4) won the second state title in program history — and first since defeating Littleton in the 1956 Class B championship game — with an 11-2 victory over No. 7 Somersworth in the Division III finals on Saturday at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium in Manchester.

“It definitely had a little something extra special because it had been so long,” said senior Devin Springfield.

It was only the third championship game appearance overall for Conant and the last time an Orioles’ baseball team made it that far was 1986. For Somersworth, it was the third trip to the D-III finals in the past four years.

But even without that kind of experience, the Orioles were not going home without the championship plaque. It hurt too much to walk away empty handed last year after a semifinal defeat.

“Knowing how close we were last year, we knew we belonged,” said Springfield.

And with senior Josh LeBlanc on the mound, Conant had every reason to be confident. Not only has LeBlanc been one of the best pitchers in Division III since taking over as Conant’s ace as a freshman, but he had some added motivation entering Saturday’s title contest.

“I said ‘this is your game to win or lose’ and he pitched well,” said Conant coach Brian Royal. “He had the experience on the mound, we just had to hit behind him.”

His relief appearance in the semifinals, where he allowed five hits, three runs and walked one in 1∕3 of an inning, is one LeBlanc wanted to quickly forget. His performance on Saturday made it easy to do so.

“I’m not a closer. I don’t close. I’m a starter,” said LeBlanc. “I have to go into the game knowing it’s my game. That’s just who I am.”

LeBlanc gave up two runs, both in the third, and struck out eight on his way to a complete game victory. He did not allow a Somersworth base runner to advance past first over the final four innings.

“Getting that opportunity, I had to cease it and make my team proud and bring home the state championship,” said LeBlanc.

Conant took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first on a LeBlanc sacrifice fly.

The Hilltoppers plated two in the top of the third to capture the lead and while there was plenty of game left, Conant wasted no time erasing the deficit. Five runs in the bottom of the third made it 6-2. LeBlanc doubled to score two runs, as did sophomore Ryan Carey, and senior Johnny Ciarcia also doubled for the Orioles’ sixth run.

And that was more than enough for LeBlanc.

But just for good measure, Conant tacked on five more in the fourth to all but put the game out of reach. After loading the bases with two walks and a single, junior Kyle Carland singled to score a run. Senior Devin Drouin also had an RBI single and Carey followed with his second two-run double of the game.

Up 11-2, LeBlanc had just one thought.

“Every out is one closer to a state title,” said LeBlanc.

He set Somersworth down in order in the fifth, allowed just a two-out single in the sixth and entered the seventh needing three more outs. LeBlanc induced a ground out to shortstop Kyle Dupuis and collected his eighth strikeout for the second out. Following a single, a fly ball to center field clinched the championship game victory.

“We hadn’t won it in so many years,” said LeBlanc. “It was just so special.”

Some may think Conant was lucky to make it that far. Trailing Campbell 6-0 in the sixth inning of the quarterfinals, the Orioles’ season looked over before rallying for eight runs in a 9-7 win.

They had to defeat No. 1 seed Laconia in the semifinals, which entered the game on an 11-game win streak and just one loss. Conant jumped out to a 3-0 lead through three and tacked on two insurance runs in the seventh before surviving a three-run rally and a bases loaded situation with two outs for a 5-3 win.

But that just shows how bad this team wanted a state title. There were a couple tough losses during the regular season, but the only thing that mattered was the tournament.

“Before our first playoff game, we huddled up and I told then we have the chance to be the best team in Conant history,” said Springfield. “We knew what our goal was this year and what we had to do to get it done.”

Conant won 12 games in the regular season and eight of nine going into the finals.

The team was ready for any challenge and it showed in that Campbell game. That was the moment Royal knew his team would win it all.

He had three all-state senior pitchers and each got at least one win in the postseason, with Eddie Clark grabbing the first round victory over No. 12 Gilford.

“The key is pitching and we had three of the best pitchers in the division,” said Royal about LeBlanc, Clark and Springfield.

And when it came time for his team to shine, they did it on the brightest of stages.

“State championship. 11-2 victory, 2-for-3 with a couple RBIs and the team came to play. No better way to end it,” said LeBlanc.

Conant baseball fans waited 57 years for another championship, but with the way things are going, the next one should not take nearly as long.

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