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Nipmuc Baseball History: 2001 Team Unexpected Champs

Not much was expected of the 2001 Nipmuc baseball team. The squad had graduated eight seniors from a district finalist team in 2000 and only consisted of 14 players, including three freshmen and four sophomores. But 10 years ago the Warriors defied the odds and, as the old sporting cliché goes, got hot at the right time and ended up winning the first state title in the program's history.

"It was basically a bunch of kids that weren't necessarily great players, but who played great," said head coach Bill McInnis. "They were smart and had incredible work ethic. There were times of practice when I would look down at my watch and say 'fellas, we've been here 3 1/2 hours, I've got two little kids, I need to go home.'"

Despite the work ethic, the season did not begin with a bang for Nipmuc. They started the year with four consecutive losses before introducing a new member to the team: a plastic penguin. Mike Teachout, who ended up being the team's most valuable player, found the penguin and decided it was good luck. "I would have taken any form of luck at that point," said McInnis. "He brought it to every game and we started winning. One thing I firmly believe is that you don't mess around with superstition in baseball."

Even with the luck of the penguin on their side and a long midseason winning streak, Nipmuc was only the five seed in the district tournament, posting a 12-8 regular-season record. Although the Warriors had been to four of the last five district championship games, without posting victory, it seemed unlikely that it would be the 2001 squad to put them over the top.

After a first-round win over Douglas, Nipmuc upset Maynard 3-2 in the semifinals behind a lights out pitching performance from senior Sean Locklin. The Warriors won the district title by beating Clinton and then wrote another strong Lockin performance to win over Ware in the state semifinals.

In the state title game, ace pitcher Anthony Leonelli was dominant, shutting down a strong Triton Regional team to lead Nipmuc to a 1-0 victory in the state championship. In a result befitting the youth of the team, it was a freshman, Cole Osburn, who drove in the winning run. A decade later, Leonelli still has vivid memories of the Cinderella run to the title, especially the support of his fellow students and the rest of the Nipmuc fans.

"At that point, Nipmuc had not won a lot of titles," he said. "The students were just unbelievable; they packed buses going to the state semifinals out in Palmer and filled up the stands in Lowell the day of the title game. I also remember how close we were as a group, only having 14 guys in being a fairly young team, we were just incredibly close throughout the whole thing. We just kept beating teams that were supposed to beat us. "

Leonelli won three games in the postseason, senior catcher Mike Portruski batted an eye popping .700, and sophomore infielders Billy Sheehan and Jimmy Douglas were among the players who played their best when it mattered the most.

"It was a great group of kids with great parents who knew that we were all in this together," said McInnis, who went on to lead Nipmuc to two more state championships in 2002 and 2005. "That was the team that really started our success, and they left a legacy of 'you never know how good you can be until you go to work."


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