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Cinderella Athol rolls on with 4-1 win

It appears that Athol High School has found the postseason-success formula.

You start with inconsistent play throughout much of the regular season. Throw in a late-season winning streak to qualify for the tournament by the hair of your chin. Then use the momentum to knock out a higher postseason seed.

For the second straight year, the Red Raiders did just that as the 11th seeds got a strong pitching performance from senior Dakota Melanson to upset sixth-seeded Belchertown High School, 4-1, in WMass Division II first-round action Thursday afternoon in Belchertown.

The Red Raiders won three straight games to get into the tournament with a 10-10 record. That came on the heels of a four-game Athol winning streak last spring to get into the tournament with the same record. Last spring the Raiders earned the ninth-and-final seed in Division II and went on to earn a 1-0 road win over eighth-seeded Greenfield High School. This year Athol was awarded the 11th and final seed in Division II and picked up a win over the Orioles.

“We’ve definitely been saving our best baseball for the end of the year,” Athol coach Josh Talbot said.

The two teams had already met once this season, on April 17, and unlike Thursday’s low-scoring affair, that game was an offensive battle. The two teams fought to a 9-9 tie through seven innings, with the Orioles scoring twice in the top of the seventh to tie the game, then proceeding to fight through another six innings that took them into the 12th inning. At that point Talbot had a decision to make with his pitchers, having already used five. He elected to toss in his sixth pitcher in the 12th inning (a player that is not even any longer on the team) rather than burn out his arms that early in the season.

“I told my athletic director that I would not burn out my pitchers’ arms in that game just to win that day because knew I would need my pitchers to be there at the end of May and early June,” Talbot said.

Melanson rewarded his coach with a strong performance against the Orioles over five scoreless innings as the Red Raiders built a 4-0 lead. Melanson struck out six and allowed just three hits and no walks through the first five innings.

“Dakota was sharp through the first five innings,” Talbot said. “His velocity was back up to where we expected it to be, and the control was there. That’s been the key the past couple of weeks: he’s throwing hard and he’s throwing strikes.”

Athol got its first run in the third, when Tyler Guerin led off with a double to left center and scored on Alex Page’s single to center. The Raiders opened things up in the fifth inning with three runs. Guerin again got things bubbling by leading off with a single that was followed by singles from Jerry Parker and Bradley Bousquet to load the bases with no outs. Page delivered his second run-scoring single of the afternoon when he drove in Guerin on a hit to right-center, and two more runs scored later in the inning on an error by Belchertown third baseman Kusnierz. While Talbot was pleased with the production, he said his team could have scored even more with some luck.

“We probably could have had eight or nine runs,” he said. “Guys had really good at-bats today.”

Melanson ran into some trouble in the sixth, giving up back-to-back singles and a walk to load the bases with nobody out. But Garrett Hall came on in relief and gave his coach exactly what he needed when he got No. 6 hitter Jim Kuznierz to ground into a double play. An Oriole run scored on the play, but Hall got Jim Mastorakis to fly out to center to end the inning virtually unscathed.

Hall then retired the side in order in the seventh, ending the game when he caught Nick Leduc looking to send the Red Raiders to the quarterfinals for the second straight season. Loser Tommy Daley struck out three and walked three in seven innings.

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