By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online
By DAVID PEVEAR
LOWELL UMass Lowell was once where fine ballplayers went to die of heartache in May. The years of tears are nearly forgotten now.
This is a new generation of River Hawks, blissfully ignorant of the program's Red Sox-like past and talented enough not to repeat it, mindful only of heroic comebacks, head-over-spikes pigpiles and Lynyrd Skynyrd being blasted over the LeLacheur Park PA system over and over again.
"Sweet Home Alabama" would be incredibly annoying if the incessant playing of it did not signal that the River Hawks of Jim Stone are dancing off to Montgomery and the Division 2 World Series for the second straight year.
They earned their way back by sweeping the Northeast's new kings of heartache, Concordia College of Bronxville, N.Y., on the final day of the NCAA Division 2 Northeast Regional for the second straight year, winning yesterday 7-2 and 9-3.
UMass Lowell failed 11 times to advance out of the Regional before making it to Montgomery for the first time last year.
"The first one is the toughest. Now it's getting to be just like breathing," quipped coach Stone.
UMass Lowell freshman left-hander Brad Laurin of Dracut tossed a changeup-laced four-hitter and senior center fielder Dave Williamson went 3-for-4 with three RBI and scored a run in the 7-2 first-game victory.
The River Hawks went ahead 2-0 in the second inning on Scott LaValley's two-run triple and Laurin did not permit them to be caught.
"He was poised and in total control," said Stone.
Then, 6-foot-8 sophomore right-hander "Scuba" Steve Palazzolo of North Reading, who on Thursday night threw 125 pitches over seven innings of a 14-6 victory over Bryant College, rode to the rescue of struggling freshman Dan Larson and tossed 6 1/3 scoreless innings of relief in the 9-3 clincher.
"I felt as confident as ever coming in there," said Palazzolo (9-2), who allowed four hits, walked two and struck out seven. "I wanted the chance to come into the biggest game of the year. The adrenaline just took over."
The River Hawks trailed 3-0 after a half-inning of that second game. They ominously left nine men on base before junior shortstop Adam McCusker of Chelmsford doubled in the tying run in the sixth inning, then shortly thereafter scored the go-ahead run on a Concordia error.
A two-run double by Allen Mottram highlighted UMass Lowell (33-16) piling on five runs in the seventh to lead 9-3 as Concordia shoulders slumped in unison at the realization that bad history was repeating.
"I missed my daughter's graduation at Loyola College in Maryland this weekend, and my mother is very sick in Florida. My emotional tank is empty," said Concordia coach Bob Greiner. "I'm a little more at peace (with losing the baseball games) because I had to spend my emotions elsewhere."
Palazzolo was named the tournament's outstanding player, and the River Hawks are off to Paterson Field by the grave of Hank Williams to play Chico State California on Saturday afternoon.
"These freshmen are spoiled. They don't know you have to fail three times before you go to Alabama," joked UMass Lowell assistant coach Dave Harne, a senior catcher on last year's team.
Laurin looked like no ordinary freshman while expertly pitching the River Hawks into a winner-take-all game. Five of his innings were 1-2-3, including the sixth, seventh and eighth. The Clippers, who had beaten UMass Lowell 3-1 on Friday, were flailing off their front feet and frustrated the entire game.
"This is by far the biggest game I've ever pitched," said Laurin (5-1), a former Central Catholic star who switched to UMass Lowell after Boston College promised him money that didn't materialize. "I'm just glad (Stone) had the confidence in me to go in there. And Tup (catcher Matt Tupman) called a great game. He told me where to put it, and I just hit the spots."
Second-game starter Larson, a freshman righty from Melrose, appeared more caught up in the bigness of the moment. He hit the game's first batter and walked the second.
"He was a little nervous," said Stone.
Concordia (44-12-1), which had lost back-to-back games just once all season, scored three runs in that top of the first and the Clippers' bench was alive again and confident.
Some of that renewed Clipper spirit was dampened when UMass Lowell sophomore right-fielder and leadoff hitter Nate Liebenow of Hampton, N.H., homered over the right-field fence on the second pitch in the bottom of the first.
"I was definitely looking to spark the team," said Liebenow, who returned to the River Hawks this season after quitting the team last year, when he felt the coaches were overlooking him. "I would have settled for a basehit. But I caught a hold of a curveball and luckily it got caught up in the wind and sailed out."
Concordia's second-game starter was senior left-hander Damien Myers, 14-0 and working on two days' rest after throwing six innings on Thursday.
While stranding men in scoring position at an alarming rate, UMass Lowell did cut Concordia's lead to 3-2 in the fifth when Williamson hit a ground ball between third baseman Carlos Abreu's legs and Tupman (5-for-7 on the day) scored from third on the error.
An RBI double by McCusker finally tied it in the sixth, then he hustled in head-first with the go-ahead run when Concordia first baseman Guy Farina dropped a low throw on a routine grounder to second by Tupman.
Liebenow ended the top of the seventh by throwing out Concordia's Charles Boyer at the plate as he tried to score the tying run on a tag-up play. Liebenow's was a perfect one-hop throw to Tupman from medium-deep right field, "the key to the ballgame," said Stone.
Last year, UMass Lowell swept Concordia 6-2 and 8-0 to win the Regional. The only difference yesterday was Saturday's rainout, which enabled Greiner to bring back Myers and his 14-0 record on two days' rest for the second game. Myers gave up four runs (two earned) on nine hits in 5 1/3 innings.
The rainy day also provided Palazzolo's right arm enough recovery time for him to play the hero.
"Probably talent-wise, on paper, last year's Lowell team was better," said Greiner. "But this team is gutsy. I was very impressed."
"Same story as last year," said McCusker. "Same happy ending."