|THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FOR ALUMNI AND FRIENDS||VOLUME XXI NUMBER 1 Fall 2005|
A Championship Season
They finished with a mediocre record, had no superstars in the lineup, and played their games on a field void of amenities, but that didn't stop the members of the 1970 Keene State College baseball team from taking their rightful place in the record book.
While the College had some success on the diamond during its early days as Keene Normal School, there's a case to be made that the 1970 varsity, the last team to win a New England State College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) championship, was one of its finest, and perhaps its most unheralded.
A team comprising some of the top schoolboy players from the Keene and Manchester areas, the 1970 Owls meshed their talents to end a title drought that had lasted 22 seasons.
"There were really some legit guys here who could've played anywhere," said Hank Beecher '73, a former standout at Bishop Brady High, who played in every inning of every game as the Owls' starting shortstop.
"We weren't one of those teams that had one phenomenal player," added Blake Richards '71, who caught and sometimes played third base. "We just had a bunch of guys who knew how to play the game."
A team built around solid pitching, defense, and timely hitting, the Owls also thrived on strong team camaraderie developed long before they put on a KSC uniform. Just about everyone on the roster had played with or against each other in either Babe Ruth, American Legion, or high school competition, including Jimmy Baker '71 M.Ed. '74, who played on the same Little League team as Beecher.
It also didn't hurt that many of the players came from winning programs. Beecher's Legion and Babe Ruth teams played in the World Series, George Skilioganis '71 was a member of the 1967 champion Manchester Central team, and Mike Armond '75 and Conrad Fisk '72 had teamed up to lead Fall Mountain High to a pair of state titles in 1968 and 1969.
You don't get far in baseball without good pitching, and the Owls were fortunate to have two stellar starters in Dennis "Denny" Bassingthwaite '73 and Baker, the Wells and Schilling of the Owls. Bassingthwaite, a lefty who hailed from Swanzey and Monadnock Regional, was a hard thrower with a nasty breaking ball. Baker, a former standout at Manchester Memorial, was a hard-throwing righty with an equally deceptive curve.
"Both Bassingthwaite and Baker could bring it home," said Glenn Theulen, KSC's longtime basketball coach, who had taken over the baseball program the year before.
The rest of the lineup was solid, too. Fisk, who also saw time on the mound, gave the Owls a potent bat at first base, while second baseman Steve Sheridan '73 and Beecher formed a dynamic double-play combination. Richards, one of the team captains, was at third while defensive standouts Ron "Ninny" Vallee '73 and Ed Silk '72 patrolled KSC's vast outfield along with the hard-hitting Armond. Darrell Graves '72 and Richards handled the chores behind the plate. The remainder of the roster consisted of Paul Metiever '74, Jim Weishaupt, Tom Kralovic '73, Ed Auger, and Bob Simpson '73. Mike Keller served as assistant coach and Bill Papajohn '73 was the team trainer.
An unusually cold and snowy winter prevented the Owls from getting outside Spaulding Gym until the start of their season. "We didn't go down to Florida back then. Our big southern trip was going to Fitchburg State," said Bassingthwaite with a laugh.
The season didn't lack memorable moments. After dropping its first two games of the season, KSC came back to sweep Salem State (1-0 and 3-1). Baker pitched a nifty three-hitter in the opener, fanning 12 and issuing just two walks. That season, the Owls split against rival Plymouth State. Fisk scored the game-winning run in a 3-2 first-game victory on the front end of a double steal. KSC later clinched the Northern Division by winning a pair against Farmington (Maine) State (2-0 and 5-3). The pitching duo of Baker and Bassingthwaite was in top form. Baker tossed a two-hitter, striking out nine straight batters in the middle innings. Bassingthwaite followed with a six-hit, 10-strikeout performance.
Courtesy of Coach Theulen, there were also some lighter times.
Theulen readily recalls a trip to North Adams State where he got thrown out for arguing balls and strikes. "I went across the road and signaled our trainer, Bill Papajohn, on what to do," Theulen said. "He followed my instructions, but we ended up getting beat."
In another "run-in" at Southern Maine, Theulen confronted an umpire after one of his players had been thrown out at first. "I told the umpire, ‘I know he was out, but I have to let my players know that I'm battling for them,'" Theulen said. "After going back and forth for a while, the umpire, who was on the short side, got on his tip-toes and kissed me on the cheek. Everyone broke up."
The Owls were all business on May 18 as they prepared to battle for the conference title. Despite a 7-9 overall record, KSC earned the right to host the championship tournament after posting a 5-1 mark in the division.
Keene State played its games on Joyce Field at the time. With home plate located just beyond the walkway crossing the bridge, Owl outfielders had to be fleet of foot to cut down potential extra-base hits. While power-hitters Fisk and Aumond took advantage of a short right field to deposit baseballs into the Ashuelot River or over the railroad tracks, speedsters Beecher and Skiligeonis utilized the expansive outfield real estate to take an extra base.
Although school was already out of session and a small crowd was on hand, the Owls didn't waste any time using the home field advantage to defeat Lyndon State 5-1 in the semifinals. Baker, who was later named tournament MVP, scattered six hits and struck out 10.
That set up a championship confrontation with Eastern Connecticut State, which came into the game as the top-ranked team in New England.
Bassingthwaite was just as sharp in the second game. The sensational sophomore pitched a four-hitter and fanned eight to lead Keene State to a 3-1 victory. Aumand was the hitting star. The freshman from North Walpole not only had four RBIs in the doubleheader (knocking in the game winner in the nightcap), but also made a pair of fine fielding plays.
"Eastern Connecticut was ready to go to the national tournament, but Bassingthwaite, who always had that cap cocked, took the ball and stuck it in their ear," said a delighted Theulen. "We beat Eastern in every facet of the game. They couldn't believe that we knocked them off. It was one heck of a game."
"I thought I did a good job mixing up my pitches and had good command," said Bassingthwaite, recalling the game. "I wanted to win. There was no doubt about that."
As it turned out, KSC never got a chance to experience their national tournament dreams. An administrative snafu prevented the team from extending its season. "At the time, we didn't know we could continue to play, so it was no big deal," said Beecher. "But it would've been nice to know how far we would've got."
"I'm not going to predict that we would've gone on to win the national title, but I think we'd have gone down there and been proud of ourselves for being there," Richards added. "We had some real talent."
A few players were scouted by major league teams, some played semi-pro ball, and others turned to competitive softball after their KSC playing days. Many ventured into the coaching ranks. Beecher, who posted his 300th victory this past season, turned Fall Mountain into a top Class I program. During his 31 seasons, 43 of his players have gone on to play college ball. "We might have not won a championship, but sending so many players to college teams means so much more," he said.
Baker, now teaching science at Claremont Middle School, and Almond, now residing in Massena, N.Y., have coached a variety of sports at different levels. Stevens is the associate principal at Londonderry Middle School, where he oversees the coaching staff and the athletic director.
As much as team members fondly recall their 1970 championship season, they are equally or more proud of their accomplishments away from the diamond. Stevens put it best when he said, "As much as we stood out as baseball players, we also stand out as good people. Many of us stayed in education and baseball and are still coaching or involved with our own kids or teams. And to me it is just as important as anything else that we gave something back to the game in the years that followed our time at Keene State."