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PREP BASEBALL: Minutemen featuring another turnaround as regional title awaits

May 30—DUNLAP — There was a celebration in Middlebury mid-April that needed a proper voice to step up.

Concord, now 6-3 on the season following a road 8-5 victory at Northridge, had broken a long 17-game losing streak to the Raiders.

"Earlier this year we beat Northridge and you would have thought we just won a sectional championship," Minutemen head coach Greg Hughes said near the end of a practice Wednesday. "And our seniors kind of got on them and were like 'hey, act like we've been here,' and that kind of set the tone the rest of the year."

But the word this year in Dunlap is "turnaround," specifically, the art of engineering one. After the boys basketball team went from a middling 11-11 record (finishing fifth in the NLC) in 2022-23, the team produced real sectional championship aspirations before falling short in the semifinal but with a much more respectable 19-5 record and tie for the conference championship.

With seniors Braeden Messenger and Andrew Kavanaugh on that team, the two walked on over to the diamond where it was time for spring cleaning. With a rough record to work with last season, the hill to climb was steep.

"It surprised me a little bit, last year we went 6-21 so it's a crazy flip and turnaround which has surprised me even getting the sectional championship," Messenger said.

"We knew we'd be better but we honestly thought we were still about maybe a year away but our pitching has done fabulous and our defense has been a lot better than we anticipated," Hughes said.

Concord, now 19-10 this season — the first winning season since 2013 and the most wins in a season since 1993 — it's clear to see that the work done has paid dividends surprising those on the outside and even those in the dugout.

The connection of the basketball stars turning their attention to the spring plays a large role.

"Last year, if we got down, we were done," Hughes said. "This year we're not like that. Especially with the success Braeden and Andrew had in basketball and bringing that to here knowing that it's not over until its over. Guys trust in each other, pitchers don't feel like they have to strike out everybody where maybe last year they felt that way."

It all came together last Saturday when the Minutemen faced all kinds of adversity in the final inning of a 4-3 win over Penn on the Kingsmen's own turf. When Emmanuel Rosa charged towards a grounder at short and fired to first for the final out, emotions ran high.

Yet, one game remained. A sectional had not yet been won. And after Braeden and Andrew worked hard to keep energy flowing out of each member of the Minutemen roster, somehow, they had to reel it all back in to add more pages to the turnaround storybook season.

Sophomore Joey Hauger suddenly drew the attention. Tossing seven innings of four-hit ball, Hauger stifled the Goshen lineup, locking up the sectional title with a 3-0 win. It was the first title in a decade.

"He's a great pitcher and he's only a sophomore so he's got two more years left which is crazy — he's a been a great pitcher for us this year," Messenger said, later telling of how the team celebrated with a trip to Buffalo Wild Wings following the sectional title, helping add context to why chemistry this season has been stronger.

"I think we have gelled more together as a team," Messenger said. "We didn't have the chemistry, even with basketball, basketball and baseball both relate my junior year, we didn't have the chemistry. I think we've had more people even hung out outside of baseball which has been a big part of the team."

The title also had other effects.

"At first it was," Hughes said about the emotions and if they ran as high as two days prior in the upset of Penn. "It really hit you afterwards like 'we just won sectional.' It was a little more emotional for me personally."

Hughes, in his fourth season with the Minutemen and 8th season as a head coach, started to believe his team may be special after a continuation of a game that had received the pause button earlier in the season.

Just two days before Concord's first win over Northridge, the Minutemen hosted Plymouth. With the Pilgrims up 9-6 in the seventh, the dark skies put a pin in what was becoming the Minutemen's first loss in the NLC.

Resuming play, now at Plymouth nearly three weeks later, Concord rallied for three in the bottom half of the frame. In the ninth, the Minutemen platted the winning run, later winning 7-1 in the true road contest that followed.

"Because you're dealing with high school kids and especially, we have a younger kids, and when you get down like that and are behind, it's kind of like 'well, let's get this game over with and start the next one,'" Hughes said. "These guys didn't have that mentality; they came in there and they were fired up right from the beginning. Got some guys on base and executed what they needed to and got the runs in."

Now preparing for the one-game regional this Saturday at South Bend Clay, the Minutemen have their sights on another title. Concord has two regional titles to its name — one in 1993 and the other in 1995.

Their opponent will be a familiar one. The Mishawaka Cavemen, one of a few teams to split with Concord in NLC play this season, is on the docket. Messenger pitched against the Cavemen in the first matchup, a 4-0 win at home on April 22. The Cavemen won 10-7 May 8.

"There's always a little nerves since there is a regional championship on the line," Messenger said. "They've seen me once already but I ready to go against them again."

SOUTH BEND CLAY REGIONAL

* Game 1: Class 4A Mishawaka (15-14) vs. Concord (19-10) — 11 a.m.

* Game 2: Class 3A FW Bishop Dwenger (23-8) vs. NorthWood (17-14) — 3 p.m.

Reach Matt Lucas at 574-533-2151, ext. 240325, or at matt.lucas@goshennews.com.