Championship Run Ends at Centennial for Wildcats
by Ken Brown
HARDWICK – The Hazen Union baseball team got past their nemesis, Thetford Academy, in a thrilling semifinal win early last week, but they couldn’t solve Peoples Academy’s (PA) ace Ben Alekson in the title game over the weekend as he led the Wolves to their second straight Division III championship.
Jadon Baker went 3-3 with a double and Tyler Rivard pitched two-plus innings of no hit ball to help the Wildcats advance to their first title game since 2007 with a 9-3 semifinal win over Thetford at Hudson Fields last Tuesday. Starting pitcher Lyle Rooney was cruising for the Hazen with a 2-0 lead into the fifth, but back-to-back doubles by Justin Robinson and Boone Fahey put a packed home crowd on edge and gave the Panthers a 3-2 advantage. James Montgomery and Rivard would execute a bunt and run to perfection in the bottom half of the fifth to tie the game at 3-3 and Baker and Andrew Menard put the finishing touches on the comeback with clutch doubles to put the game out of reach. Rivard and Menard finished with two hits apiece as Hazen avenged a pair of one-run losses to the Panthers in last year’s Division III Final Four and earlier this season. Nolan Pepe finished the day with two hits for Thetford and Mack Briglin pitched well in defeat as they finished the season at 11-5.
“We did a nice job of jumping on them in the first and Lyle held them down, but they fought back like they always seem to do and we needed to respond and the guys did a great job of answering back. That team has had our number lately and I was really impressed with how the guys attacked in pressure situations. It’s really easy to be timid in those moments, but they executed great, had some timely hits, and just smart clean baseball by James and Tyler to get that rally started. It was a great win in an electric atmosphere in front of what felt like the entire town and the kids were really excited to feel and experience that,” said head coach Spencer Howard.
Junior ace Ben Alekson was brilliant in the title game for Peoples Academy for a second straight year, striking out 17 and walking none to lead the Wolves to a 9-0 win over the Wildcats. Aasha Gould’s double and Tyler Rivard’s single in the bottom of the seventh were the only blemishes on Alekson’s stat line on the afternoon as the big right hander struck out the side in the last three innings to douse any hopes of a Hazen comeback. PA’s bats made the trip to Centennial as well, chasing Hazen starter Lyle Rooney after four innings with seven hits and four runs. Rivard relieved Rooney to slow the Wolve’s momentum, but it was just their day, pounding out four more hits and five more runs, giving Alekson all the breathing room he needed.
“Ben was dominant and composed and when he’s dotting the outside corner like that, he’s very difficult to beat. You have to rattle a pitcher like that early and not let him get in a groove, but we didn’t execute our game plan very well and once he got going it all just kind of snowballed. Credit to them for executing and playing well today. We had a great season with only a couple clunkers against Spaulding and, unfortunately, today. Only two other Hazen teams have made it this far to step on this field and I’m proud of this team for how they battled together all season and for they accomplished,” said Howard.
Alekson helped his own cause with two hits, a pair of stolen bases, and three runs scored. Derek Baxter added an RBI triple for PA that was a few feet from leaving the ballpark. Alekson consistently threw in the mid to high 80s all afternoon and sprinkled in a curveball that kept the Wildcats guessing. After a 28-year drought, the Wolves run of back-to-back titles in Division III comes to an end as they move up in weight class in 2023. Howard’s Wildcats made school history this spring with a school-record 15 wins as the first Hazen team to enter the tournament as the #1 seed. He will lose seniors Tyson Davison, Aasha Gould, Jas Zendik, and Wyatt Flanders to graduation, but returns a talented core of underclassmen that should be poised to make another deep playoff run next spring.
“It was forty years to the day that Hazen won the title in ’82 and this team wanted to be the next, but PA just got us today and that’s how baseball is sometimes. These seniors helped rebuild a program and a culture that was a three-win team not long ago and I’m proud of what they’ve done here. To see them walk into Centennial this morning and take it all in with mouths wide open was so fun to watch and a moment that all of these guys will take with them throughout the rest of their lives. There is no doubt we have a talented core coming back next season and they’ll be hungry to get back here. If we continue to put in the work, there is no reason why we can’t be,” said Howard.