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Defending state champion Concord Post 21 ready to try for two straight

First baseman Dillon Emerson leads Post 21 with a .400 batting 
average as Concord aims to repeat as Legion state champion. This photo was taken at last year's state tournament, where Emerson was named MVP. 

(Andrea Morales/Monitor Staff)

First baseman Dillon Emerson leads Post 21 with a .400 batting average as Concord aims to repeat as Legion state champion. This photo was taken at last year's state tournament, where Emerson was named MVP. (Andrea Morales/Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

Concord Post 21 got to the top of the American Legion mountain last year. Now, on the same stage it came alive on in 2012, it’ll try to prevent anyone else from making that climb.

The state tournament gets under way today and Post 21 is sitting comfortably as it pursues its second straight championship. Concord is the top seed in the tournament, at 17-3 overall and 12-2 within District A, the games are at home at Memorial Field and the pitching staff is stocked with rested, capable pitchers, and pitchers who have already won at this level.

Coach Bryan Caruso likes the mix, and he’s not about to dismiss the experience factor.

“I think everyone’s excited and ready to go,” he said. “I think the kids are excited to go through the process. Knowing … how tough it is, I think that definitely gives us an advantage.”

Caruso emphasized the arduous nature of the tournament. It’s a grind, with games played over five straight days, if a team is good enough to earn the right to keep playing. Bats get sluggish and pitchers get tired, as Concord witnessed last year when the lineup sputtered for stretches and the innings count for some pitchers reached into the 60s.

This year, however, the innings for the top arms in the rotation have been held to the 40s, while a hectic period in which rainouts forced Post 21 to play seven games in five days gave the team a quick rehearsal for the pace of the tournament.

“We kind of treated that week as the state tournament,” Caruso said. “We went 6-1 in that week and we tried to let our guys know that this is what it’s going to be like. You’ve got to be ready every day.”

Having the pitching staff Concord boasts eases the burden of those back-to-backs. Post 21 has a trio at the top of the rotation that started last year, and the three have posted outstanding seasons so far. Eddie Dionne (3-0, 1.65 ERA) and Autrey Gates (4-1, 1.69) lead the way, while current Concord high ace Josh Partridge has made strides in his second Legion season, going 1-1 with a 1.56 ERA. Post 21 lost a pair of starters from last year but eased the transition with the addition of Bow’s Nate Corriveau, who’s been superb with a 5-0 record and 1.77 ERA. Dillon Emerson (1-1, 1.93) and Shane St. Onge (1-0, 3.00) have formed a strong bullpen, as well.

“We have people that can help out on the mound,” Dionne said. “If someone’s struggling one day, we can bring in someone else that’s just as (good), and whoever was struggling will be available later in the week, and it’s still a very good arm to have.”

The lineup has been more of a work in progress, but Post 21 has the bats to do some damage. The top hitter is defending tournament MVP and first baseman Emerson, whose .400 average and 17 RBI are first and second, respectively, on the team. Shortstop Ben Bengtson (.321, 18 RBI) has performed well in the leadoff spot, and another dip into the Bow talent pool has meant the additions of second baseman Evan Vulgamore (.265, 13 RBI) and outfielder Chris Fournier (.314, 12 RBI). Another new starter to the mix, Matt McCormack, is hitting .305 with 12 RBI at third base.

“We’ve had our struggles throughout the year, but right now we’ve been hitting the ball great,” Emerson said. “No one’s going to go up there and hit three home runs a game and carry us that way. We’re scrappers.”

That ability to come through at the plate, according to Caruso, will be the key in Post 21’s title quest. Concord started slowly in too many games last year, and had to rely on late rallies in order to salvage victories. It’s a risky way of playing that resulted in the team’s quick exit in the regionals, and Caruso said the team needs to give its pitching staff room to work with early on.

“There were times (last year) we had three or four hits a game and were able to manufacture runs,” Caruso said. “I think that’s going to be the key to this tournament, as well. Facing everybody’s ace, are we going to be able to do that again?

“I think we know what we have on the mound, I think we know what we are defensively. But can we battle against the top pitchers in the state five straight days?”

Concord will have its answer soon enough. First up is Londonderry Post 27, the fourth seed in District B at 11-7, but a team that is fueled by the core of the high school team that went to the Division I championship game. Caruso anticipates a challenge, but he also expects his team, once again, to be prepared for it.

“The important thing is that they understand the grind that it takes to go out and win the tournament,” he said. “It is a very tough tournament. You’re facing everybody’s best pitcher every single day. I think we’re ready for that.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or abonifant@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @dbonifant.)

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