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D1 Central: Leominster 2, St. John's 1

WORCESTER, Mass. -– When Neil O’Connor stepped up to the plate, the only voice he could hear was the voice of his coach, Rich Barnaby.

“This could be your last high school at bat, Neil. Make the most of it.”

O’Connor dug in to the batter’s box against St. John’s reliever Dan Barlok, who had just been chosen to replace Pioneers’ starter Steve D’Agostino. The scoreboard, nearly a straight shot from O’Connor’s vision, read 1-0. With two outs in the bottom of the sixth, the Pioneers were one out away from escaping the jam – and escaping one of the state’s most proven clutch hitters.

“That was the first thing that crossed my mind,” O’Connor said. “I didn’t want it to be my last at bat. I just wanted to pick up the rest of the team.”

O’Connor swung at the first pitch he saw, a belt high fastball that he smashed over the left field fence to give the Blue Devils a 2-1 lead. The University of New Hampshire football commit, who has long been a star on the gridiron as well as the baseball diamond, added yet another chapter to his storied athletic career in Leominster.

“I wanted to get a base hit, I knew [Barlok] was going to come in throwing strikes. I got a good piece of one. That was probably the farthest ball I ever hit –- so I guess it came at a good time,” O’Connor said, with a smile.

“He takes the first pitch and hits it over the left field fence,” Barnaby said. “He’s the best athlete I’ve coached in 15 years. It’s just fun to show up to practice and show up to games with him.”

But O’Connor’s heroics went beyond the batter’s box. In his third consecutive year pitching against the Pioneers in the Division 1 Central semifinals, O’Connor pitched a complete game for Leominster, giving up one earned run on five hits. He struck out seven and walked two, throwing 68 of his 95 pitches for a strike.

“I knew one run wasn’t going to beat us. I preached to the guys all week that bunts and execution was going to win it,” Barnaby said. “And we ended up winning on a two-run homer –- so much for that.”

D’Agostino throws a gem: The most analyzed decision of the game will likely be Eppinger’s decision to pull Pioneers’ starter Steve D’Agostino in favor of Barlok before O’Connor came up to hit. D’Agostino, a lefty who will play his college baseball at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, had 5-2/3 innings pitched. He walked two and struck out five Leominster hitters, doing so on just 70 pitches.

“Our team played very, very well and I made some decisions late that didn’t work out, so the game is on me. I told my team that -- ‘That game is on me, they don’t deserve to lose it',” Eppinger said.

Eppinger had a tough decision in choosing who to start against the Blue Devils. P.J. Browne has been the Pioneers’ ace for two years while senior lefty Charlie Murray came on strong late in the season to give the St. John’s even more depth at pitcher. In the end, Eppinger’s decision to go with D’Agostino was based off his performance against Leominster last season, when D’Agostino threw nine innings and gave up two runs to the Blue Devils.

“That was a decision that a lot of people were questioning -– that we started D’Agostino today,” Eppinger said, “We had some other guys, some very, very good pitchers, Charlie Murray and P.J. Browne, but we went with D’Agostino and he was fantastic. That was a decision we got right as a coaching staff.”

The rivalry continues: The St. John’s-Leominster rivalry has been especially fiery in recent years. The Blue Devils fell to St. John’s in the semifinals, during O’Connor’s sophomore year, before O’Connor came back to send the Pioneers packing two consecutive years -- a complete game shutout on the mound last season at Tivnan Field, to go with his Wednesday night heroics.

Eppinger was nothing but complimentary of O’Connor following the loss.

“Neil O’Connor is a tremendous competitor," Eppinger said. "In sports, a lot of athletes talk, but he backs it all up. You have to tip your cap to him, he pitched one hell of a game and had the big hit when it was necessary.”

Eppinger added: “It’s a great baseball tradition at Leominster...It’s a good area in the state, similar to Milford -- they produce great baseball players and great baseball teams year after year, from the youth level all the way up to high school. Tremendous respect for Leominster, it seems like we always see them in the playoffs.”

“The past four years we’ve met up with them in districts,” O’Connor said. “I’ve pitched the last three and I was 1-1 coming in. I just really wanted to get this, our whole team did. We’re real big rivals in football, basketball, baseball...everything.

“It was pretty heated out here. We never want to lose to them. They’re a great team, every sport is always a great battle.”