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By Michael Flanagan
Hometown Weekly Sports Editor
Looking at the Division I South bracket from afar, the favorites to come out on top before the sectional began earlier this June were No. 3 and defending Eastern Mass champs Wellesley, No. 2 Brockton, and No. 1 Plymouth North.
After both Plymouth North and Brockton failed to make it out of the quarterfinals, the door was opened for one of the mid-lower seeds to make some noise and make a run at the sectional title. This year, that team was the No. 8 Needham Rockets.
After earning a 2-1 walk-off victory against Catholic Memorial in the first round, the Rockets took down No. 16 Marshfield, 9-2, in the quarterfinals. On Thursday, Needham squared up with Bay State Conference rival and perennial Division I power Braintree at Adams Field in Quincy with a spot in the sectional championship game on the line.
Braintree jumped out to an early 4-0 lead on Needham staff ace Tom Chmielewski by scoring a pair of runs in both the top of the second and the top of the third. The Rockets were able to plate a run in the bottom of the second off of a fielder’s choice, but left men stranded at first and second with one out. The game remained 4-1 headed to the fifth.
With no outs and a runner on third, senior shortstop Alex Luscher smacked home an RBI triple to plate Kevin MacKenzie in the bottom of the fifth and cut it to a 4-2 game. Later in the inning, Luscher brought home Alec Sharton with an RBI groundout to short to make it a one-run game at 4-3.
Charlie Roberts came on in relief for Needham in the top of the sixth and worked his way out of a bases loaded jam with a pair of strikeouts to keep the deficit at a single run for the Rockets through 5 1/2 innings.
Chmielewski led off the bottom of the sixth for Needham with a triple into the right-center field gap. Danny DeMayo then smacked an RBI sac fly to left to plate Chmielewski, tying the game at four.
Roberts came back out on the mound and struck out a pair to get Needham to the bottom of the seventh still tied at four. The Rockets loaded the bases with no outs in the home half, culminating in an infield hit by Sharton to plate Steve Donovan as the game-winning run. The Rockets walked off to the sectional finals.
On Saturday against Wellesley, Sharton picked up right where he left off against Braintree and got the Rockets on the board first with an infield hit to second base, plating Donovan for the early 1-0 lead. Will Foley doubled Needham’s lead to 2-0 with an RBI single to center to bring in Sharton. Chmielewski then cracked an RBI single to right to bring in Foley. The Rockets led, 3-0, after one. Wellesley scored a pair to make it a one-run game in the bottom of the first, but a two-RBI single by Sharton extended Needham’s lead back to three runs at 5-2 after 1 1/2 innings.
Wellesley tied the game at five with a three-run rally in the bottom of the second. Senior Charlie Sumner came on in relief and got the Rockets out of the inning still tied. Wellesley caught a break with one out and a man on third in the top of the third when DeMayo lined out to second base and the Raiders were able to double up Chmielewski at third to get out of the inning.
After each team plated five runs in the first two innings, the bats took a break as Sumner worked consecutive 1-2-3 innings to get the Rockets to the fifth still tied at five. DeMayo singled to right to bring home the go-ahead run in the form of Ben Gilarde to make it 6-5 Rockets with one out in the top of the fifth. Jordan Gold then brought in DeMayo with an RBI single to left to make it a 7-5 game, but Wellesley turned an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play to get out of the frame and limit the damage to a pair of runs.
Kevin MacKenzie then made the play of the postseason thus far with a diving catch in right field to rob John Ciolfi with two outs and two runners in scoring position in the bottom of the fifth. The catch saved, at minimum, a pair of runs that would have tied the game; it preserved the lead for Needham through five full.
DeMayo blew it open for the Rockets in the top of the sixth, cracking a bases-clearing triple to right-center with one out to give Needham a commanding 10-5 lead.
Roberts came on and struck out Colin Blasco before getting Holt Fletcher to ground into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded, as Needham maintained it’s five-run lead after six full.
Needham added another run in the top of the seventh to make it an 11-5 game. Wellesley scored three in the bottom of the seventh thanks to RBI hits by Kai Grocki and Henry Weycker to make it 11-8. Chmielewski came on in relief with one out and the tying run at the plate and recorded a strikeout and a fly-out to MacKenzie in right by Blasco. Needham hung on for the 11-8 win and claimed the sectional title.
“We feel confident,” said Needham pitcher Tom Chmielewski following the sectional final win against Wellesley. “We know that we can play with anybody in the state when we play our game and it has shown over the past couple of weeks.”
At the time of print, Needham gets set to take on Boston Latin in the Eastern Mass championship game (state semifinals) on June 19.
For funny and incisive sports analysis, follow Mike Flanagan on his personal Twitter at @fLAno0, or read his blog at www.flannylive.wordpress.com.