Jaywalking: Branson, Panthers are back

Monday, May 29, 2017

It’s crazy to think that it’s been six years since Kyle Platner, Casey Blanchard, Tom Malooly and a host of teammates helped lead the Pioneer Valley Regional School baseball team to the Division III state finals.

I remember that spring vividly because I was the scribe tasked with following Pioneer throughout its tourney run. I was at Billy Bullens Field in Westfield on June 13, 2011, when a shortstop for Pioneer named Jonathan Mancha stepped to the plate with one on and two out in the top of the seventh inning of a 6-6 ballgame. The WMass Division III baseball championship game was being played on a Monday night that season because of rain on Saturday. That night was also Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, when the Bruins were hosting Vancouver in a must-win game. I can remember sitting in the stands and hearing updates on the Bruins game from fans, a game the B’s eventually won 5-2.

I also remember thinking that although I was bummed to be unable to watch the B’s, the baseball game I was witnessing was quickly becoming one of the most memorable in my tenure at the newspaper, a fact that remains to this day. It only took me a minute to locate the 2011 baseball scorebook in my desk Monday afternoon. I opened up to that June 13 game when Pioneer met Easthampton for the WMass title to relive it.

Both teams traded runs in the first inning that night before Pioneer appeared to blow things wide open with five runs in the second. Jordan Stempel, Malooly and Blanchard each hit RBI singles in the frame, and the Panthers appeared to be well on their way to the crown.

Easthampton would not go away. The Eagles began chipping away at the 6-1 deficit, getting two runs in the third, two in the fifth and one in the sixth. The top of the seventh was one of the most memorable innings I’ve covered. Malooly walked to lead off but was cut down at second when Joey Larson tried to bunt him over, leaving Larson at first base with one out. At that point, Easthampton pitcher Kyle Dussault became very concerned with Larson at first base, and continually threw over to try and pick him off. Things got testy between the two teams during this sequence, and at one point an umpire had to step between Larson and Easthampton first baseman Weston Clark when the two began arguing. Dussault eventually struck out Tyler O’Brien, which brought Mancha up to the plate with two outs.

Mancha was a slick-fielding shortstop hitting seventh that night. He worked the count to 2-2 against Dussault, who was again throwing to first base several times during the at-bat. On the fifth pitch, Mancha launched a deep fly ball to left field that Easthampton left fielder Matt Gilbert went back on and eventually saw him crash head-over-heels over the wall as the ball landed over the fence for a two-run home run that put Pioneer up 8-6.

Larson set the Eagles down in order in the bottom of the seventh — including striking out the final two hitters — and Pioneer had its first WMass title since winning three straight during the Brad Baker era in the late 1990s.

Two days later, Pioneer beat Hopedale, 4-2, in the state semifinals (and that night the Bruins beat Vancouver 4-0 to win the Cup), sending the Panthers on to the state finals, where they suffered a 9-4 loss to Newburyport.

The reason I got to reminiscing about that 2011 season was because the Panthers baseball team has been through some tough times since that year. Pioneer returned to the tournament in 2012 but lost in the WMass semifinals, and since that time, things have not gone well for the Panthers.

Pioneer had as many coaches (three) as it had wins in a single season over the past four, winning two games in both 2013 and ’14, and three games in 2015 and ’16. The problem was not necessarily a reflection of the coaches or the players, but the program simply seemed lost, if that even makes sense. As the losses piled up, morale went down, and without consistency at the coaching level, there was no stability to right the ship.

Although this season may not be a return to the glory days of six years ago, for the first time in five years, the Pioneer baseball team has reason to celebrate. The Panthers went 11-9 this season, finishing one game back of first place in the Hampshire League East Division, and qualified for the WMass postseason.

Jordan Branson took over as coach this year and inherited a team that once again had enough talent to win; it just needed to enjoy some success. Branson was also in need of some success. He previously coached Hopkins Academy, taking the team to the state finals in 2014, but he was not brought back to coach the next season. Upset, Branson did not jump back into coaching at the high school level, but decided to throw his name in the ring for the Pioneer opening.

“I never questioned that I was let go for not knowing what I was doing on the baseball field, but it still hurt,” Branson said. “For me to be back on the field for the first time in two years, I knew I was going to have fun. I knew we would win some games and lose some games, but to have this kind of outright success, I’m so happy for the guys.”

Mother Nature did not make things easy on the first-year coach. The late snow kept the Panthers (and every other team in Franklin County) stuck in the gymnasium for the first couple weeks. Branson said he was busy trying to learn the names of his players, but it was difficult to see what they could really do.

Branson said that he began trying to come up with things the team could do in the gymnasium, including a few things that might have broken with tradition when it comes to the game of baseball. One of those things was to bring in a yoga instructor to work with the team.

“It took them out of their comfort zone, caught them a little off guard,” Branson said.

The team wound up creating a pre-game routine that included some yoga posses to help with flexibility. At first, Branson said the players thought it was a little crazy, but after the first time out, the team opened up to it and made it part of their routine.

“It’s not only good for the body, but it brought them together,” Branson said. “They didn’t care what they looked like. They felt confident and bonded even more.”

It did not take long for Branson to recognize exactly what he had, which included a pitching staff that was at least six deep and a team that featured all kinds of speed.

What the team really needed was a jolt of confidence. No one on the current varsity team had ever experienced any success at the varsity level. Things did not start out great for the Panthers, as they opened at 1-3.

“It’s hard to create a winning mentality without winning,” Branson said. “We spoke early in the season and we talked about how there are two teams on the field and somebody has got to win, so why not us?”

Another issue that the team was having was the inability to put mistakes behind it, something that Branson wanted to address.

“When the ball doesn’t bounce your way, you have to put the bad stuff in the past,” he explained. “It’s about being able to put an entire loss, or an error behind you. And instead of hounding a kid while they’re on the field, just let it slide and tell them to make up for it on the next play. The difference between a winning team and a losing team is the one where a kid can make a mistake and then make up for it the next time around.”

The season turned around on April 27. At that point, Pioneer was sitting at 2-4 overall but knocked off Smith Voke, beginning a five-game winning streak.

“After they saw a couple of wins in a row, they started getting used to winning, like they had gotten used to losing,” Branson said. “And not in a bad way. They weren’t cocky. It was positive. Having that streak there just gave them a little more fight. Win or lose, those guys were mentally prepared and had that drive to succeed.”

Pioneer sat 7-4 overall and wound up winning two out of its next three to move to 9-5 on the season. The team did lose three in a row after that, but won two of its final three games to qualify. The season-ending game came on Saturday, when the Panthers stopped Smith Academy from winning sole possession of the HL East crown with a dramatic 5-4 win in eight innings. That win also gave Pioneer wins over every team in the HL East this season, so it wasn’t as though they simply beat a bunch of weak teams.

“I’m so happy for the seniors, because they’ve been through a lot,” Branson said. “And these seniors have been so positive all season. I didn’t have anyone fighting me about anything.”

That included stalwart Eliot Mousseau, the Panthers’ starting shortstop and top pitcher. Branson said that having a player like Mousseau was incredible, because so many times the captain would say things to the team that Branson was about to say, whether it be to pick up equipment after practice, or offer some words of encouragement.

“I’d take a dozen Eliot’s on my team regardless of athletic ability,” Branson said. “To have one of the guys who is that in-tune with what I’m thinking is very, very special. I told him and his parents that he is leaving some real big shoes behind to fill.”

Mousseau is moving on to play baseball at Colby-Sawyer College next year. But before that, he and his Panthers teammates have some work to do. The team will find out its seed in the WMass Division IV Tournament this evening when they are announced at Greenfield High School. From there, who knows.

But the good news is that Pioneer baseball is back in the postseason. And as a seventh-seeded Panthers team showed back in 2011, once you get in, anything can happen.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com. Like him on Facebook and leave your feedback at www.facebook.com/jaybutynski.