At first glance, the 20-19 overall record turned in by the Plymouth State College baseball team in 1998 looks only slightly better than average.
But when you consider that the Panthers won 20 games for the fourth straight season, against a schedule that included 12 games against NCAA Tournament teams, you realize that PSC had a pretty decent team this season for 14th-year head coach Dennis McManus. The Panthers went 6-8 in regular season Little East Conference games, but captured a pair of upset victories in the LEC Tournament to end the season on a positive note.
"We had a good finish, and a good performance in the tournament," said McManus, who has led PSC into the post-season nine times in 14 years. "I'm happy with the season we had. We won more games than we lost. Our weakness was what we thought it might be: starting pitching and pitching depth. That's what it boiled down to."
Just how tough is the Little East Conference? The three finalists at the NCAA Northeast Regional were LEC schools (Eastern Conn., Southern Maine and UMass Dartmouth), and when Eastern Connecticut captured the NCAA Division III national title recently, it marked the second straight year the national champion came from the Little East Conference (Southern Maine won it all in 1997).
The strengths of this year's Panther team were the usual solid hitting line-up as well as a strong defense. The Panthers batted .291 as a team, as were strongest up the middle, a sign of a good defensive unit.
"I think it was a much more balanced hitting team than we've had in the past," said McManus. "We may not have had that one huge bat, but the whole batting order was a threat from top to bottom. In previous years we've had a good heart of the order but the bottom three were almost sure outs. This year there were very few people you could pitch around. Even the (hitters at the) bottom of the order did their job."
There were four starters who batted over .300 - senior OF/C Mark Thompson (Manchester, NH), junior CF Josh Egan (Sharon, MA), junior DH Mike Bence (Warwick, RI) and sophomore SS Todd Steffanides (Fitchburg, MA). Thompson closed out a monster, record-setting career by hitting a team-high .382 with 14 doubles and 26 RBI, starting at four different positions (all three OF and C) and handling team captain duties. Egan established himself as a standout ballplayer after batting .372 and leading the team with eight home runs and 33 RBI. He is a strong defensive outfielder, and was an LEC All-Tournament Team pick. Bence posted a .352 batting average with three round-trippers, joining Thompson as solid bats from the left side of the plate.
"Mark Thompson meant a lot to this team as a leader and a great captain," said McManus. "He's a good kid, and he had what many would consider, including himself, not a real good year. But that was only compared to his first three years. He still put up some pretty good numbers. He became a smarter hitter and a better hitter."
The key to the infield, and perhaps the entire offense, was Steffanides, the shortstop and leadoff batter. After missing all but eight games of the '97 season following a leg injury, he returned to start every game at short and stabilize the infield defense. He also batted .310, had an on-base percentage of .438, and led the team with 36 runs scored and 15 stolen bases. Steffanides has the respect of just about everyone, as evidenced by the fact that he was voted a captain next year of both the PSC men's basketball and baseball teams.
"I'm not sure that this kind of season wouldn't have happened last year if he hadn't gotten hurt," said McManus. "Todd is important to our team. He's very steady, both ability and attitude-wise. You show up every day at the ball park knowing what to expect from him. He'll make an excellent captain next year."
No other infield position was manned by the same player all season. Second base was a platoon situation between sophomore Jason Freeman (Manhasset, NY) and junior Jim Freda (Windham, NH), with Freeman having an edge in playing time. Senior 3B Josh Norse (Brattleboro, VT) was hitting .298 when an injury ended his season after 18 games, but he was capably replaced by sophomore transfer Corey Mastin (Newmarket, NH), who batted .291 with 10 extra-base hits in 79 at bats. Junior Ben DuBois (Franklin, NH) got most of the playing time at 1B, but sophomore Jason Blye (Deerfield, NH) filled in when DuBois went to the mound. Junior George Gauthier (Rochester, NH) was the Panthers' primary catcher, displaying sound defense and showing occasional pop at the plate. Thompson, a former full-time catcher, went behind the plate whenever Gauthier needed a break.
The usual Panther outfield included Thompson, Egan and senior RF Sean Walsh (Laconia, NH), but McManus occasionally turned to juniors Don Jennings (Bradford, VT) or Seth Whitworth (Orford, NH). Freshman Dakota Smith (Rochester, NH) was a reserve who could play both infield and outfield, and junior Mike Ryan (W.Roxbury, MA) could catch, play 1B or DH.
While starting pitching depth was a problem for the Panthers, McManus felt good about his top two starters - junior Ben DuBois (Franklin, NH) and sophomore Adam DeChristopher (Brockton, MA). DuBois was the most consistent, going 4-3 with a 2.75 ERA and earning All-LEC honorable mention, while DeChristopher was less consistent, finishing 4-1 with a 5.56 ERA. Both righthanders saved their best outing for last, pitching complete game victories to lead PSC to upset wins in the LEC Tournament over UMass Dartmouth and Southern Maine. They were the only two pitchers on the LEC All-Tournament Team.
Sophomore Brian Neff (Salinas, CA) and senior Drew Shields (Pittsburgh, PA) were PSC's third and fourth starters, and while both had excellent outings, both struggled at times. Corey Mastin (Newmarket, NH) and Mike Bence (Warwick, RI) were called on for an occasional start or relief appearance. Freshmen Jason Walsh (Wolfeboro, NH) and Rene St. Pierre (Danvers, MA) were long relievers, and senior Sean Walsh (Laconia, NH) picked up five saves as the team's closer, usually coming to the mound from his position in right field.
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