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Michael Wilkinson: Underdogs rose to the top in 2012

JERREY ROBERTS
The South Hadley team celebrates with their Division 2 State Championship trophy Saturday after defeating Plymouth North at Fitton Field in Worcester.

JERREY ROBERTS The South Hadley team celebrates with their Division 2 State Championship trophy Saturday after defeating Plymouth North at Fitton Field in Worcester. Purchase photo reprints »

“You can throw the records out when the postseason rolls around.”

It’s one of the more overused clichés in sports, but during 2012 the expression was certainly appropriate.

In the professional sports world, a pair of teams with local ties overcame above-average regular seasons to win their league’s championship.

The New York Giants, led in part by former UMass receiver Victor Cruz, won Super Bowl XLVI after a 9-7 regular season, making them the first team to ever hoist the Lombardi trophy without double-digit victories.

Also, in a sport you might remember called hockey, the Los Angeles Kings became the first No. 8 seed to win the Stanley Cup. Former UMass goalie Jonathan Quick was awarded the Conn Smythe trophy as the Most Valuable Player of the playoffs, which saw the Kings eliminate the top three seeds in the Western Conference en route to the finals.

On the local high school level, no team made the expression come to life more than the South Hadley baseball squad, which overcame a 4-13 start to its 2012 season to win the program’s first state Division 2 championship. It was the only state team title for any Hampshire County high school.

It should be noted that South Hadley played a predominantly Division 1 schedule during its 7-13 regular season.

In the postseason, the Tigers rolled off eight victories in a row, the last a 5-0 triumph over defending state champion Plymouth North. They displayed the time-tested qualities of winning baseball teams: strong pitching, stellar defense and timely hitting.

South Hadley was led on offense by leadoff hitter Connor Sheridan and No. 3 hitter Mike Croke, the two team captains. But coach Matt Foley received contributions up and down a lineup with little power but solid hitters.

The pitching, solid all season, reached another level once the games truly mattered. Senior Jordan Page fired complete-game masterpieces in the sectional championship and the state championship. He allowed just five hits in blanking Plymouth North.

However, their postseason run barely got off the ground. South Hadley needed extra innings to beat Southwick 1-0 in the WMass quarterfinals. Following solid wins over Mount Greylock and Monument Mountain to win the sectional title, the true character of the Tigers was tested in the state semifinal against CMass champ Auburn.

After taking a 4-0 lead into the bottom of the fifth, the Tigers saw the Rockets bats explode for five runs to take a 5-4 advantage into the top of the sixth. But South Hadley fought back to tie, then took a one-run lead in the top of the seventh.

Three outs away from the state title game, Foley called on sophomore Joe Ciolek to pitch the last of the seventh. It looked bleak when Auburn put its first two runners on base in the inning.

But Ciolek and the Tigers escaped and erupted into celebration after the final out. Somehow it seemed the state title had already been decided.

South Hadley became the first state baseball champion to finish the season with a losing record at 12-13. To some, that may seem to be an ignominious distinction. But the 2012 South Hadley Tigers showed why records can be misleading and in the end are just numbers, whereas sports are about character, which the Tigers displayed in the most important games.

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