Conant baseball takes first tournament step

Conant’s Kaden Kirby tags out Gilford baserunner Drew Smith on a successful throw from catcher Hunter Schultz to end the top of the fifth inning.

Conant’s Kaden Kirby tags out Gilford baserunner Drew Smith on a successful throw from catcher Hunter Schultz to end the top of the fifth inning. PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Conant head coach Aric LeClair speaks to his team after the playoff win.

Conant head coach Aric LeClair speaks to his team after the playoff win. —PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Conant freshman Kaden Kirby makes a diving play at shortstop.

Conant freshman Kaden Kirby makes a diving play at shortstop. PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

 Conant senior Jordan Ketola waits at third base with teammate Corey Collins at the plate. 

 Conant senior Jordan Ketola waits at third base with teammate Corey Collins at the plate.  PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Conant’s Hunter Schultz celebrates after a two-run double that would prove to be the game-winner.

Conant’s Hunter Schultz celebrates after a two-run double that would prove to be the game-winner. PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Conant senior Josh Dipasquale rounds third to score the Orioles' first run of the game in the bottom of the fifth. 

Conant senior Josh Dipasquale rounds third to score the Orioles' first run of the game in the bottom of the fifth.  —PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Conant senior Lane LeClair pitches against Gilford. 

Conant senior Lane LeClair pitches against Gilford.  PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

By BEN CONANT

For the Ledger-Transcript

Published: 06-03-2024 12:01 PM

Conant’s commanding baseball season continued to come up all black-and-orange Saturday afternoon, as the undefeated Orioles kept up their win streak with a 3-1 victory over visiting Gilford in the NHIAA Division III quarterfinals.

Conant (17-0) finished the regular season with an unblemished record, and with their average margin of victory at 11½ runs per game, Saturday marked a month since the last time they played a game decided by fewer than eight runs. The playoffs are a far different beast than the regular season, but despite the relative cakewalk leading up to Thursday’s bye and Saturday’s quarterfinal matchup, coach Aric LeClair’s boys showed they are ready for the grit and grind of the postseason.

“I think we proved it today,” LeClair said after the victory, their closest game since two nail-biting wins over rival Monadnock on April 18 and May 1. “And we proved it – obviously it was early in the season, but we’ve shown what we’re capable of doing, of getting the job done. The thing that’s awesome about these close games, when you make a mistake, it shows – and we only made one mistake today.”

Gilford (11-7) scored their only run on a wild pitch in the top of the sixth inning after the Orioles had already gone up three runs in the bottom of the fifth.

“Without that little hiccup, I think it’s a 3-0 game,” LeClair said.

The game began as a pitchers’ duel between Conant’s senior ace Lane LeClair and Gilford sophomore Drew Smith, who forced the Oriole batters out of their comfort zone by working the outside of the plate. Smith struck out 13 batters over 5.2 innings and kept a shutout going into the fifth.

“He stepped up,” Aric LeClair said. “I wasn’t expecting his fastball was going to jump like that. He threw very well.”

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But Lane LeClair was as dominant as he has been all season, throwing a complete-game four-hitter with 17 strikeouts, reaching the 100-strikeout milestone along the way. He’s now 8-0 on the year with two saves, a 0.75 ERA and 101 Ks.

Conant only mustered two hits off Smith into the fifth inning, but they were able to put a few together in that frame. Dylan Adams got things started with a walk, and Drey Seppala was hit by a pitch to bring up freshman catcher Hunter Schultz with two on and two out. Schultz – 0-2 at that point – made his adjustment to Smith’s location and bashed a ball to the right-center gap that scored Seppala and pinch-runner Josh Dipasquale.

“That pitcher was living on the outer half, so you’ve got to look for that pitch,” Schultz said. “He just threw it there and I got it. I was pretty hyped.”

Saturday’s game was initially scheduled for 4 p.m. but was moved to a noon start, and that time change helped Conant add an insurance run, as a Jordan Ketola pop fly to left flew directly in front of the midday sun and dropped between three Gilford fielders to score Schultz.

Conant may be heading into Tuesday’s semifinal game as the dominant, undefeated No. 1 seed, but after last season’s finale, they know nothing’s a given and they’ll have to earn every victory.

“We go into every game with the same approach,” Schultz said. “We don’t let being undefeated or anything get to our heads. We just get after it, you know?”

The Orioles had a big lead over eventual champion White Mountains in last year’s quarterfinals before losing in heartbreaking fashion, and this season has been inspired by that unfinished business. Just like the last three outs of a game, the last three wins on the road to a championship are the hardest; on Saturday, the O’s took care of the business at hand, and now, they have two to go. On Tuesday, Conant will take on No. 4 Belmont (16-2) at 7 p.m. at Laconia’s Robbie Mills Park, as the Raiders dispatched White Mountains 11-1 in the quarterfinals.

Belmont and Conant met in the semifinals in 2017, where Pitcher of the Year Cole Contigiani outlasted Oriole aces Corbin Sasner and James Record in a thrilling 2-1 game.

“All the teams that are remaining are championship teams,” Aric LeClair said. “It’s just who has a little bit better of a day, and I’m hoping that’s going to be us.”

Mascenic baseball falls to Derryfield

The Mascenic baseball team’s season came to an end Thursday, as the 16th-seed Vikings lost 7-2 to top seed Derryfield in the first round of the Division IV playoffs.