LOWELL, Mass. -- Steffen Herter had heard the pop in his left shoulder before -- twice earlier this season, to be exact.
Only this time, when the Amherst Regional catcher dislocated his shoulder swinging at a pitch low and away in the bottom of the second inning, it was significantly worse. This wasn't the usual half-minute, pop-it-in-and-go quickie, but rather a task that took seven minutes.
Still, Herter wasn't going to sit for long: He had an All-American on the mound, and a state title to win. He threw some long toss and swung the bat, had his trainer tape him up to the point where he couldn't move the joint backward, and told coach Greg Vouros he was ready to go.
Vouros relented to Herter in the bottom of the seventh, and the junior promptly laid down a perfect bunt to lead the Hurricanes to a two-run rally and their first Division 1 state baseball title, downing Xaverian 3-2 Saturday night at LeLacheur Park.
"We know that we're not always going to be the greatest finesse team," Herter said. "But we've got a lot of guys with a bunch of heart. That's just how we play, we get gritty performances and anyone on this team is ready to give it all."
Down 2-1 to start the seventh, the Hurricanes (18-7) wasted no time trying to manufacture a run. They ended up getting two, thanks to bunts by Herter and senior Chuck Hebb. Herter dribbled one up the third-base line and stole second, then Hebb followed suit -- his bunt blooping over the pitcher's head -- to put runners at second and third.
After a walk loaded the bases, senior Sean Cunningham brought Herter and Hebb home with an opposite-field double off the right-field wall that landed fair by just a few feet for the 3-2 lead.
"It just goes to show what kind of kid he is," Vouros said of Herter. "We've got a lot of kids like that on this team. But he's our catalyst. He's our leadoff hitter, our catcher, him and Chuck are the glue of our team as far as attitude. I give those guys a lot of credit. Two bunt singles got it going for us. That's unbelievable."
The small ball allowed lefty flamethrower Kevin Ziomek, the Hurricanes' recently anointed Gatorade Player of the Year, to close his high school career in storybook fashion. Ziomek, a Vanderbilt commit who was taken in the 14th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks in this month's MLB draft, had never gone nine innings -- or 138 pitches.
But for the most part, he was lights out. After retiring the first six Xaverian batters (five on strikeouts) and helping his own cause with an RBI single in the first, he surrendered the lead in the fifth when Alex Phelan took him deep for a solo home run.
Over the final four innings, however, only two balls left the infield, both for base hits that produced nothing. Ziomek finished with 17 strikeouts -- one off his career high -- but his final pitch of the night might have been the most telling. The scoreboard in center field flashed "95" miles per hour, his game high, as Bobby Carkhuff handled a grounder at first for the final out.
The team erupted, as one might expect. Yet Ziomek remained calm amidst the ecstasy.
"It's just a huge game, your adrenaline's flowing; guess I got lucky," he said when told of the speed of his final pitch. "I was just trying to win a ballgame. I was going to do whatever it took to win tonight."
Across the field, there was little regret for the Hawks (15-11), who entered the South sectional as a No. 15 seed at 10-10 and figured to have an early exit. Junior Derek Reddy was charged with three earned runs in the loss, but gave his all, throwing 139 pitches before being pulled following Cunningham's double.
"My arm felt good, but I started catching more of the plate and leaving it over. They took advantage of it," Reddy said.
"It was good just getting here. Obviously it would have been better with a win, but we got here, and we gave it all and lost by one."
Northbridge runs the table
It was just one that got away, but Northbridge coach John Demagian knew his team needed to refocus.
"On the first day of practice, they were talking about winning the state title," Demagian said. "I had to stop them right there."
The veteran skipper quashed the Rams' inflated sense of self after a disappointing opening-day loss to a formidable Auburn team. With a renewed focus, Northbridge would not look back, winning their next 24 contests, including Saturday's 3-1 win over Duxbury, to claim the school's first state baseball title since 1999.
"I told them to stop thinking about the big prize and focus on what was in front of them," Demagian said.
The Rams would need to regain their composure again while closing out the Division 2 final. They were coasting by with a 3-0 lead entering the seventh when Rams starter Evan Mackintosh encountered his first trouble.
Capitalizing on a couple of Northbridge miscues, Duxbury (22-3) scratched across a run on Tom Kazanowski's infield single.
However, the Green Dragons' attempted comeback was cut short when Mackintosh ended the game with his 10th strikeout, earning the complete-game win.
"Three outs. It seems like it's nothing, but it really is a lot," the junior said. "I just wanted to pitch well today and keep them off balance. I tried to work the corners and hit my spots."
The Rams jumped out to a quick lead against Duxbury's Jeff Blout on Mackintosh's wall-scraping, run-scoring triple in the first inning.
Tom Murphy, who went 3-for-4 from the leadoff spot for Northridge, followed with an RBI double in the fifth. Murphy scored an insurance run on Ben Richards' sacrifice fly in the seventh.
"He wanted the ball in the title game and he went out and battled as hard as he could," coach Barney Earle said of Blout's six-plus inning effort. "I can't say enough about him and the respect I have for him."
As for how this year's title team stacks up to his '99 squad, which featured former Red Sox first-round draft pick Rick Asadoorian, Demagian said that team was slightly better -- by one win to be exact.
"This team didn't have that one star player. It was a real team made up of talented kids."
Twitchell blast calms Norton
Mike Twitchell knew the first-pitch fastball he walloped was going deep over the LeLacheur Park fence as soon as the bat left his shoulders.
The Norton designated hitter's mammoth shot, a 375-footer to deep left-center for a grand slam in the bottom of the first, was just his second dinger of the year. But he knows where the ball is going.
"That will be in a trophy collection, definitely," he beamed.
The early blow helped relax his teammates in the Division 3 state final, and Norton went on to a 7-4 win over Ware to claim its third state title and first since 1989.
"When I was running around the bases, I couldn't help but smile," Twitchell said.
"I think it really calmed us down," second-year coach Ted Currle said. "And coming from Mike, it's perfect, because he's so laid back and hilarious that, you know he wasn't nervous and he just wants a fastball. He got it, and he crushed it."
The Lancers (18-8) wrapped up their surprising tournament run with 54 runs and 71 hits over the six games after starting out the South sectional as the No. 10 seed.
"These kids know how to play," said Currle, whose predecessor, Dave Mollica, won two state titles. "They make it easy for me. I'm just glad to keep it going."
There were, of course, some nervous moments. Winning pitcher A.J. Bashaw had to get out of some early jams and the usually air-tight defense made a few errors, but they were countered by some nice late-game grabs from Phil Rizzo (2 for 4, RBI) and Tom Munger (two RBIs, run).
Ware (22-4) pulled within 7-4 in the sixth, but stranded two runners.
"We didn't get the big hit," coach Scott Slattery said. "If we get the big hit in any of those innings … Even in the sixth, we had the bases loaded and no outs and we only got two in. If we had hit a gap there, the game is tied up or we have a lead."