WESTFIELD – While tragic shootings, strange weather phenomena, concussions, and ultimately, bad behavior by pro athletes dominated the headlines in 2012, there were two local sports stories which deserve another round of applause from the Whip City.
This past summer, a team of 13-year-old ballplayers captured the hearts and minds of family, friends, and fans from Westfield, Western Massachusetts, throughout the Bay State, and all throughout the northeast, (all the way to the west coast for that matter) as they hit, ran, fielded, and tossed their way into the Babe Ruth Baseball 13-Year-Old World Series in Kitsap, Washington.
It was an inauspicious start for Westfield, which lost its opener in the double-elimination state tournament to Pittsfield in an error-plagued contest in early July. But with their backs to the wall, the Whip City boys posted one victory after another, including a 30-3 drubbing of Worcester-West Side in sweltering near-100 degree heat to advance to the championship.
Westfield, behind the dynamic pitching of its ace, Ari Schwartz, defeated Pittsfield 5-0. Schwartz earned a complete game shutout. But in the second game, Pittsfield and Mother Nature rained on the Whip City’s chances for a crown. Westfield lost 6-3.
The loss did not deter Westfield.
In fact, it was Westfield coach Mike Smith, who declined the tournament director’s option for a shared crown prior to the penultimate game – both teams had already secured spots in the regionals – to try and win the title outright.
Westfield’s young ballplayers took on their coach’s fortitude, and unrelenting persistence to achieve success, and it showed in the regionals at Bullens Field.
Westfield came out and whipped Manchester (N.H.), 14-4, in the New England regional opener behind yet another complete-game effort from Schwartz on the mound. But it was the second game where they received one of their most heart-pounding victories, an 8-6, 9-inning win over their rival, Pittsfield. They also won their third game, 7-3, over New Milford (Conn.).
Despite losing its first game of the regionals to New Milford in the championship, Westfield rebounded with a 6-5 win in eight innings in front of a raucous crowd at Bullens to advance to the World Series for the first time in two decades.
The first pitch – and nearly every other pitch in Game 1 of the World Series – was unhittable for Westfield as Wait Park pitcher Joey Atkinson threw a no-hitter to lead Minnesota to a 3-0 win.
Fifty-eight hours after the first pitch, Westfield had its first hit of the series and several more in an 8-6 win over the Kitsap County host team.
Westfield then bowed out of the series with losses to Arkansas and Idaho. Still, the Whip City’s enigmatic outfielder, Austin St. Pierre, who displayed a dazzling array of power and speed at the plate, on the basepaths, and in center field, earned Most Valuable Player honors at the position.
While sparkling on the diamond all summer, Westfield’s 13-year-olds had an experience of a lifetime, traveling thousands of miles, honoring media requests like natural sports stars, dedicating a ball to fallen Westfield Police Officer Jose Torres – who lost his life in a construction site accident – watching the Seahawks and Mariners, sightseeing, and being honored with a parade and a Fenway Park event.
“These guys represented Westfield all summer long,” Smith said after the whirlwind tour. “We were not overly talented, we didn’t have terrific defense or top notch pitching, but we hung in there all the time, and exceeded a lot of expectations.”
“The first time I met these guys and their families, I told them how they had a great opportunity to be ambassadors of baseball,” said Smith. “They really lived up to that and more.”
The other story is actually a sequel of sorts, building on chapters from 2011, 2010, 2009, and so on, updated annually to reflect a current win streak. They are, by far, the city’s most successful high school sports team – the Westfield Bombers gymnasts. And they are coached by Joanne Hewins, who was selected to the Sports Illustrated 2011 Faces in the Crowd Coaches’ Edition.
Together, this record-sized roster of gymnasts and their loveable coach extended their record to 78-0, cementing their status as one of the state’s biggest high school dynasties.
Westfield won its sixth straight west sectional title this fall, defeating Minnechaug by less than three-tenths of a point at Chicopee Comprehensive High School. The Bombers finished first with 134.875 points, in front of Minnechaug (134.625), Chicopee (129.150), Hampshire (124.900), Gateway (124.825), and Agawam (121.800).
This time it took a dominating floor exercise in the final rotation to secure the victory – Westfield took four of the top five spots in the event.
Brendan Whitman finished first with his floor routine, earning a 9.2 from the judges. He was followed by Taryn Hamel and Josh Burrage (tied 3rd, 9.05), Jaymie White (4th, 8.85), and Angela Bonavita (6th, 8.575), who capped off a brilliant comeback from a torn ACL with a second-place finish in the all-around competition (33.875).
“I was in the gym every day,” Bonavita said. “I guess hard work pays off.”
Bonavita tied for first on beam (7.0) and placed fourth on the uneven bars (8.5). Hamel finished third in the all-around with a 33.65, and placed third on vault (8.4).
“This shows how we can pull it together in the end even if we have a tough meet like this,” Hamel said.
While these two storied teams were clearly the two biggest shining moments in sports locally this year, it is quite likely they will dominate the headlines again in 2013 – many of the baseball players as 14-year-olds and the gymnasts as they embark upon the quest for 100 straight.