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The Legs Have It: Steal of Home Helps End Woodstock’s Year

  • Woodstock High runner Sam Cole reaches first base safely Monday as Harwood's Riley Abair leaps to snare an errant throw. The Wasps lost, 3-2, in the Vermont Division II semifinals.<br/>Valley News — Tris Wykes

    Woodstock High runner Sam Cole reaches first base safely Monday as Harwood's Riley Abair leaps to snare an errant throw. The Wasps lost, 3-2, in the Vermont Division II semifinals.
    Valley News — Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »

  • Woodstock High's Doug Avellino winces after a teammate took a called third strike Monday during the Wasps' 3-2 loss at Harwood in the Vermont Division II semifinals.<br/>Valley News — Tris Wykes

    Woodstock High's Doug Avellino winces after a teammate took a called third strike Monday during the Wasps' 3-2 loss at Harwood in the Vermont Division II semifinals.
    Valley News — Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »

  • Woodstock High catcher Conor Joyce awaits a throw that arrives too late to retire Harwood runner Matt Fischer on Monday. The host Highlander won the Vermont Division II semifinal, 3-2.<br/>Valley News — Tris Wykes

    Woodstock High catcher Conor Joyce awaits a throw that arrives too late to retire Harwood runner Matt Fischer on Monday. The host Highlander won the Vermont Division II semifinal, 3-2.
    Valley News — Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »

  • Woodstock High runner Sam Cole reaches first base safely Monday as Harwood's Riley Abair leaps to snare an errant throw. The Wasps lost, 3-2, in the Vermont Division II semifinals.<br/>Valley News — Tris Wykes
  • Woodstock High's Doug Avellino winces after a teammate took a called third strike Monday during the Wasps' 3-2 loss at Harwood in the Vermont Division II semifinals.<br/>Valley News — Tris Wykes
  • Woodstock High catcher Conor Joyce awaits a throw that arrives too late to retire Harwood runner Matt Fischer on Monday. The host Highlander won the Vermont Division II semifinal, 3-2.<br/>Valley News — Tris Wykes

Moretown, Vt. — The pivotal play of the Woodstock High baseball team’s season seemed to unfold in slow motion and silence Monday. Wasps pitcher Matt Poljacik began his full-motion windup with two outs in the third inning and Harwood runners on second and third when the Highlanders’ Luke Russell sprinted for home plate.

For several seconds, no player or spectator in a crowd of several hundred made a sound, but that didn’t stop Russell, a speedy leadoff hitter who, after a season of begging, had finally received the surreptitious go-ahead to steal home.

The only people in on the plan were Russell and his third-base coach, who didn’t signal to the batter’s box or the bench for fear the green light would be revealed. As soon as Poljacik initiated his motion with a step back and to the side with his left foot, Russell was on the move.

As Woodstock fielders, coaches and fans began to scream for Poljacik to hurry up and throw the ball home, he briefly paused, one leg in the air. Was this really happening? Oh no, it really was.

“I wasn’t expecting it and it caught me off-guard,” the pitcher said. “I had no clue it was coming until I was halfway through my windup.”

Said Harwood coach Mitch Casey: “He held the ball like a deer in the headlights.”

Poljacik finally released the horsehide and his low pitch was snared by Conor Joyce as Russell slid home in a spray of dirt clods to give his team a 2-0 lead. It wasn’t the winning run in Harwood’s eventual 3-2 triumph, but both sides agreed it was a tipping point.

“That was the dagger,” said Woodstock coach Jason Tarleton. “It was a good baseball play, and we were caught off-guard, for sure. It’s the type of play you see only every couple of years.”

Casey said his players have successfully stolen home three times during his 12-year career and that the Highlanders (14-1) immediately noticed Poljacik’s slow pace when he wasn’t pitching from the stretch position. After timing it with a stopwatch, the hosts decided they’d go for the gusto if the chance arose.

“We’re not a prolific hitting team,” said Casey, whose top-seeded club managed only three hits, none after the third inning. “But we play good defense, we pitch well and we run the bases like crazy people.”

The loss ended an overachieving season for fifth-seeded Woodstock (14-5), which was 6-11 in 2013 when the roster featured only 12 players. This spring’s version had seven seniors and seven freshmen, with all of the former starting and helping the squad win its first 10 games.

“The cool thing about this group is they always think they’re going to win,” said Tarleton, who guided the program to a share of its first Marble Valley League title since he took over 14 years ago. “Today, in the seventh inning, you could feel the vibe changing.”

Harwood opened the scoring in the third inning. The first batter clubbed a shot over the head of left fielder Luc Issa, who initially took a couple of steps forward. Another double followed after Russell was hit by a pitch, pushing him to third base and setting the stage for his unusual steal.

The Highlanders went up 3-0 during the fourth, parlaying a walk, a stolen base, a fielder’s choice and a sacrifice fly into their final run. Woodstock got on the board an inning later when No. 9 hitter Hunter Balch, Dougie Avellino and Bradley Lewis smacked consecutive singles with one out and Sam Cole’s groundout scored Balch.

The Wasps rallied for another run during the seventh against Harwood closer Dominic Moreno. Balch drew a leadoff walk before Avellino, who had belted an earlier double, appeared to have done it again. However, his line drive to deep center field was caught by leaping defender Dylan MacIsaac in spectacular fashion.

“That was a circus act,” Poljacik said. “I thought it was going over his head for sure.”

A Lewis groundout moved Balch to second and he scored on a Sam Cole single, but Zach Cole grounded out to end the inning, game and season. Harwood will face No. 2 Mil River in the division title game.

“We did our best, and if we’d caught a couple of breaks, we could have tied the game,” said Poljacik, whose team had nine hits. “But that’s probably the fastest pitching and the best pitching we’ve seen all season.”

Poljacik allowed three hits and three earned runs while striking out one batter, walking one and hitting one in four innings. He was relieved by Conor Joyce, who surrendered no hits and one walk.

Avellino, Lewis and Joyce each had two hits, while Sam Cole, Issa and Balch each had one. Zach Cole and Dylan Kuhn, the Wasps’ fourth and fifth hitters, were hitless during a combined seven at-bats.

Notes: There were no errors during the game. … Harwood’s loss came during its second contest of the season and against Lamoille, the team Woodstock beat in the quarterfinals. … The Highlanders’ home field is as picturesque as any in the state, set in a dell beneath a grassy bluff on which spectators sit. Right field ends in a slope up to the 120-acre Harwood Union Forest, a town recreational area. … Poljacik said he plans to join the military after graduation and is leaning toward enlisting in the Marines. … Moreno, perhaps taking a cue from Seattle Mariners reliever Fernando Rodney, pitched with his hat cockeyed to the right. … Harwood draws students from Moretown, Duxbury, Fayston, Waitsfield, Warren and Waterbury.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.