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Late season slide hopes to fuel Belmont baseball

by Jeff Lajoie
Sports Reporter

Belmont junior Angelo Palmer had a breakout season for the Red Raiders this spring. Jeff Lajoie. (click for larger version)
June 18, 2012
BELMONT – On May 4, everything seemed to be going right for the Belmont High School baseball team. But a month later, the Red Raiders were left wondering what exactly happened down the stretch, as their season culminated with a disappointing play-in round loss to White Mountains, 5-4.

After winning five straight games, including three against tournament teams, by a combined score of 43-9, Belmont stood at 6-3 on the season following a win over Prospect Mountain on May 4. Fortunes would change the rest of the way however, as the Raiders won just one more game, averaging less than two runs per game over the final eight games to finish the season 7-10 overall.

"It just seemed we couldn't get over that hump," said BHS coach Matt LeBlanc of the late season stretch. "We were in every game but playing from behind was not a strength of ours. At the end of season we'd get down a few and it just changes the game. It was definitely a learning experience. But I'm very proud to say we had an opportunity to win every game. We were never 10-runned and I was happy to see that growth. It's tough when you aren't getting the results but they were putting in the work. That part didn't change for us."

Belmont's real strength, especially during its winning streak early in the season, was its pitching staff. The three-man rotation of Bret Spaulding, Ian Shaw and Ryan Pluskis kept the Raiders in just about every game. Spaulding finished 2-3 with a sensational 1.29 ERA, as he struck out 30 batters in 32 innings of work to go along with just six walks. Shaw was 3-2 with a 2.58 ERA and Pluskis, just a sophomore, went 1-4 with a 4.39 ERA and 16 Ks in 28 innings.

"He didn't have the success in the wins and losses but he faced every tough team on our schedule," said LeBlanc of Pluskis. "He pitched against Somersworth twice, Franklin, Laconia, Prospect Mountain…all really tough teams."

Spaulding's three loss came to Berlin (2-1) and Newfound twice (1-0, 6-2), but he came up huge in the win over PM when he came on in relief to grab a save and give Pluskis his first win of the year.

While Shaw graduates, he was the lone senior on the roster, meaning there will be plenty of veterans back next season. That includes a talented junior class, which stepped into a much bigger role this year after the departure of seven seniors from last year. Angelo Palmer received the Sportsmanship Award this spring, and the junior centerfielder was a big key to the team's success.

"He really took on a vocal lead this year," said LeBlanc of Palmer. "He was always cheering on the guys, trying to get everybody going."

Spaulding paced the pitching staff and will be expected to lead the way again next year as a senior, while fellow junior Kaleb Brace continued to be a rock behind the plate as the team's catcher and on field leader. Cole Padula, Austin Wilder and Aaron McLelland were other juniors to play big roles for the Raiders.

"Next year we're no longer a young team," said LeBlanc, who finished his second year as varsity coach. "If anything, hopefully the way the season ended fuels the guys for next year."

The sophomore class saw some key contributions as well, with Pluskis being joined in the lineup by Garrett Gilbert, Brent Minery and Jason Taylor. Freshman Joe Levesque was also a nice surprise, as he came out and earned a complete-game victory in his pitching debut against Winnisquam.

"These guys have heard for years that they have a ton of potential," said LeBlanc of his team. "I hope that I can help them realize that potential. We play in a very tough area, play a lot of tough teams. What I think these guys learned this year is if you want it, you have to work for it. Hopefully every year we continue to raise the bar."

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