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The Yankee Express

Rams defense drives team in postseason play

The Northbridge Rams celebrate making the MIAA Division 4 Finals. Photo submitted.

By Christopher Tremblay
Staff Sports Writer

Keith Verra came aboard as the Northbridge baseball coach five years ago and although he lost an entire season to the Covid pandemic he has guided the Rams into the State Tournament the other four years. During his first season with Northbridge the Rams came within one game of moving on following the regular season. In 2021 Northbridge won two games in the Division 3 Central Tournament before falling to Oakmont in the Semi-Finals. 
Last spring Verra guided the Rams into the Division 4 State Tournament only to fall in the first round, but this past season Northbridge avenged last year’s one and done in the State Tournament.  Entering the Tournament as the number nine seed, the Rams faced off against South Hadley and their top pitcher in the first round and it looked as though Northbridge would be repeating last year’s round one exit when South Hadley scored two runs in the top of the seventh to take a 3-1 lead. However, the Northbridge players pushed across three runs in the bottom half of the seventh to earn a 4-3 walk off victory.

 Coach Keith Verra and assistant coach Matt Abrain hold for a photo with the Rams' senior players. Photo submitted.

Blackstone Valley Tech, which had beat Northbridge 3-2 during the regular season, was up next for the Rams. Unlike its regular season loss, Northbridge squeaked out a 2-1 victory to advance into the third round of the State Tournament.  Verra was looking at facing top seed Bellingham in the next round, but number 16 seed Lowell Catholic upset the Blackhawks and Northbridge was now finding themselves back at home for their next contest. Once again the Rams grabbed the victory 2-1 to advance into the Final Four.

 Talk gets serious in this pre-game huddle. Photo submitted.

 “Our first three tournament games were all by one run,” the Northbridge coach said. “Abington was a marathon game which we eventually lost in 14 innings. Michael Cary and Joey McKeown gave us six innings each, but we just didn’t have enough. McKeown (who was coming off an arm injury) had 10 strikeouts for us in that game.”
Throughout the year, the Rams seemed to find themselves involved in a lot of close contests against the better teams. They have also had their share of blowouts as well as getting blown out when they were not on their defensive game. 
Verra does not consider Northbridge to be a power hitting team, nor a team that has strikeout pitchers. Instead, his team prides themselves on their defense. 
 “It was our defense that got us going mid-year and propelled us into and through the tournament,” Verra said. 
That defense was led by captain and catcher Matt Visbeek. The senior not only provided the defense behind the plate but was third in the Ram lineup, batting .361 with 30 hits in 89 at bats and was named to the SWCL All-Star team.
 “Pitching is an important part of the game, but if you don’t have a catcher who can keep the ball in front of him you’re going to have problems,’ Verra said. “Most people believe that your defense starts with your shortstop and centerfielder, but your catcher is the one who jump starts the defense.”
The Northbridge defense continues with the infield, which is made up of three juniors and a sophomore. McKeown, another SWCL All-Star, played the hot corner for the Rams this past season and much like Visbeek, he provided the team with defense as well as offense. 
The junior led the league in batting at .405 with 30 hits in 90 at bats, in addition to leading his team with five extra base-hits and 23 stolen bases. According to Verra, the Rams third baseman is a tremendous defensive player and one of the best athletes at the position that he has coached in 30-plus years.
Sophomore Jake Costello batted .347 with 24 runs scored, while second baseman Brady Hubert batted fifth in the lineup and with his defensive skill provided a formidable double play tandem with Costello. 
Senior Cam Athanas found his role as the squad’s DH, although he would have much rather been playing second base. 
 “Cam was a great leader and teammate,” the coach said. “He accepted his role as DH but would have rather been out in the field. We tried him out in the outfield, but he was just not comfortable there.”
Athanas, a three sport athlete at Northbridge, was another Ram named to the SWCL All-Star team. He had 96 plate appearances for Northbridge and stole 13 bases. 
On the mound Dom Radford and Michael Cary carried the team. As Verra noted the squad was not big on strikeouts, but his two senior hurlers not only kept opposing batters off balance, but minimized the number of walks they gave up. 
 “Dom became our ace and lead the team in every pitching category there was. He went 6-2 with a 1.12 ERA while giving us 5 to 6 innings per game and in 62.2 innings he had 26 strikeouts and only allowed 10 earned runs,” the coach said. “Michael was our number two and won a couple of tournament games for us and pitched phenomenally for us in the 14-inning game against Abington in the tournament.”
 “This season was unbelievable, I truly love this team and enjoyed going to the field with them every day,” Verra said. 
The Northbridge skipper continued to note that although they will be losing four seniors (Visbeek, Athanas, Radford and Cary) the team will be up for another run next spring.
“We may be even better next year,” he said. “It’s all about these four contributing seniors who changed the culture for the positive for Northbridge baseball. They will be the reason we move forward in the future.”
One of the main reasons the culture worked was because of Assistant Coach Matt Abrain, a 2010 Northbridge graduate who was part of the State Championship team. According to Verra, the kids could really relate to Abrain.
Despite losing his catcher, DH, and top pitchers this season Verra firmly believes that next season the team should continue where they left off this season. Northbridge will be bringing its entire infield as well as its left fielder (Ryan Bedigian) and centerfielder (Zac Tevepaugh), both incredible defensive athletes. Six of this year’s eight position players will be back on the diamond next spring with Verra.
On the mound, McKeown should be healthy and back to 100% while taking on the role as the Rams pitching ace. Verra foresees big things for him as well as being one of the best hurlers in the league. Also seeing some action on the mound will be sophomore Ryan Miley as well as Hubert. 
Northbridge will also see an influx of talent moving up from a successful junior varsity team that should also improve the varsity squad. 
“We’re losing two very good senior pitchers, but we should still be able to keep pace with Joey moving into the ace role and having a supporting staff behind him,” Verra said. “I don’t want to wish this season away as it was truly special, but we have to start looking to the future.”