Thursday, April 28, 2011
New England Roundup: New Hampshire
By Marc Thaler
The focus these past two weeks has been on win streaks.
New Hampshire is home to two teams, each with a consecutive victory count that's quite high – and continues to climb.
On the Seacoast, Portsmouth High's baseball team owns a state-record 68-game win streak, a run that's seven wins shy of matching the national record (75), according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Michigan's Homer High set the standard in 2005.
Meanwhile, in the southern part of the state, the Londonderry High girls' lacrosse squad rides a state-best 42-gamer.
“[The win streak is] something that's talked about throughout the community. We see more people coming to games as we get closer,” said senior Keegan Taylor, Portsmouth's Northeastern-bound pitcher. “As a team, we try not to think about it as much. It's not a distraction, but it is added pressure.
“Game-to-game is what we focus on most,” he added. “You don't want to be that team that loses.”
You'll hear the same sentiment echoed in Londonderry's camp. Here are three additional similarities that link Portsmouth and Londonderry, and their win streaks:
Tremendous turnarounds – Portsmouth coach Tim Hopley and Londonderry mentor Bob Slater didn't inherit powerhouse programs. They built them.
Hopley's start 16 seasons ago was particularly inauspicious.
“We were on a 30-game losing streak midway through my first season. I started 0-10 in my coaching career and the team lost the previous 20 prior to that. I thought I was going to get fired. So, all this stuff we're in the middle of, I don't see it as a negative,” Hopley said when asked if the constant questions about Portsmouth's win streak have grown tiresome.
Slater, in his sixth year guiding the girls, didn't take over a team trying to snap a long losing streak. But, he has often said, a defeatist's mentality hovered over the program.
Londonderry went 5-11 the year before Slater arrived. Six of those setbacks were at least eight-goal margins of defeat. Confidence among athletes was non-existent. The Lancers won 11 games in Slater's first season (2006).
“When I took the girls' program over, being in the concrete business, I said 'We’re going to put the foundation in this year,” Slater said. “Then, we’re going to build the house the next year, and we’re going to fill it.
“Lo and behold, we won two championships my fourth and fifth years,” he added. “It’s a game plan.”
Succession of stars – Graduation every spring is the great equalizer. Once-dominant teams can quickly disappear as rosters turn over.
The Clippers and Lancers lost their share of stars. As their streaks suggest, though, the talent pools are plenty deep.
Quality pitching has been a consistent theme at Portsmouth for three-plus seasons.
Southpaw Tim Welch (Bowdoin) and righty Ben Hart (UMass) pitched the program to the 2008 title, the first in the run.
Welch, at the time, was featured in Sports Illustrated “Faces in the Crowd” for not allowing a run all season (52 innings pitched, 9-0 record). Hart was also 9-0.
Pitcher Nate Jones (Wake Forest) and slugger Mike Montville (Maryland), who helped clinch crowns in 2009 and 2010, are also among the former stars responsible for three straight perfect campaigns.
This year, Taylor and Manhattan recruit Aidan O'Leary, a center fielder and designated hitter, are the leaders as three-year varsity players. The team ace, Taylor dominated his first two starts, totaling 26 strikeouts while scattering four hits.
Sophomore Ricky Holt, Portsmouth's No. 2 pitcher, should soon find himself atop the rotation.
Just like Portsmouth's streak, Londonderry's run has survived because new leaders continue to emerge.
Kayla Green – whose career totals include 261 goals and 172 assists for 433 points – paced LHS to its first Final Four in 2008. Now a Stonehill standout, she led the Lancers to their first title in 2009.
Virginia's Dana Boyle (257-79–336), arguably the best all-around talent to hail from the Granite State, and Vermont's Marcie Marino headlined last year's super-stacked squad.
This season, junior-laden Londonderry remains a juggernaut. Midfielder Jenny Thompson and attacker Leah Walter, both juniors, lead the high-powered Lancers. Freshman midfielder Alexa Bedell, already a force, is Londonderry's latest rising star.
Tunnel vision – Players may discuss their squad's streak periodically. But it almost never comes up in conversation with the coaches.
That doesn't mean each mentor finds his team's feat insignificant. Hopley and Slater simply place far more importance on the team's need to be better the next time out. It's the reason, after all, that these streaks exist.
“The thing I want to make sure we're still doing is continuing to improve, so when push comes to shove (in the state tournament), we know how to handle it,” Hopley said.
Likewise, Slater devotes complete attention to preparing for every opponent, regardless of record. He demands nothing less from the Lancers.
Of course, these teams and their streaks possess unique qualities. These two top the list:
Clipper quintet knows national pressure – Five Clippers played for Portsmouth's 11- and 12-year-old all-star team that reached the United States semifinals of the 60th Little League World Series in 2006.
The quintet includes Taylor and the junior foursome of third baseman Matt Feeney, catcher Connor Trefethen, shortstop Billy Hartman and right fielder/back-up backstop Connor McCauley.
“We played on a big stage, in front of cameras,” said Taylor, the starter in the LLWS national semifinal. “Being in the game, you're not personally thinking about pressure. But having that (experience) under your belt ... does make it easier to (compete) in big situations.”
Lancers have a long way to go – Londonderry, unlike Portsmouth, is still several perfect seasons from challenging its sport's record for longest win streak. If the streak survives the week – which ends with games against sub-.500 Salem High on Friday and the Bay State's Duxbury High on Saturday – Londonderry will own a 44-gamer (Framingham High was the last team to top the Lancers).
That's 60 wins shy of Loch Raven High. The Baltimore-based program is said to own the record with 104 straight wins from 1973-82.
“We are definitely aware of (the streak). We are all so proud of it,” said Thompson, a known name to several Division I women's college lacrosse coaches. “We all think about it all the time.
“Everyone wants to beat us,” she added. “We are everyone’s target.”
Marc Thaler is a staff writer for the New Hampshire Union Leader & Sunday News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read his blog, "New Hampshire GameDay" and follow him on Twitter @marc_thaler.