HOPEDALE – No one on Hopedale’s baseball roster brings up how the 2023 season ended.

The Blue Raiders held the No. 4 seed in the 2023 Division 5 state tournament and hosted No. 5 Pioneer Valley in the quarterfinals. That season itself was a revenge tour after Hopedale lost in the 2022 state championship game against Mount Greylock. Hopedale fell at Hopedale Town Park a game short of the Final Four.

“We didn’t talk about it too much. Obviously it sucks to lose, and no one wants to be in that position. You can’t change that. It’s just reality, you lose,” Hopedale senior Lucas Levasseur said. “So you go into the summer and you try and get better. And I think our whole goal in the offseason was just to get better and not necessarily focus on what happened last year and look forward to what we can do this year.”

That’s easier said than done when five starters graduate. They were three of the Blue Raiders’ best four hitters and three of the best pitchers.

“They carried us in the field, and they definitely carried us on the mound a lot last year,” Hopedale coach Kevin Bresciani said. “The last three years our team has really been carried by seniors. And this year has been a little bit different.”

Keep it rolling

In some ways.

The Blue Raiders haven’t slid back at all despite the talent drain at the top of their roster. They’ve maintained the No. 2 spot in the Division 5 power rankings and already clinched the Dual Valley Conference title. The Blue Raiders reached the Central Mass. final for the fourth tournament in a row.

Same old Hopedale.

But how does this keep happening? The combined junior and senior high school enrolled 447 students this season – 228 boys. Hopedale’s population was a shade over 6,000 at the 2020 census. Yet the Blue Raiders have advanced to at least the state quarterfinals (or sectional final under the old playoff system) every year since 2019. They won Central Mass. championships in 2015, 2013 (another trip to the state final) and 2008 and reached the final four other times between 1999 and 2013. The program won a state championship in 1968 and captured CMADA crowns in 2023 and 2021.

That sort of longevity is rare at a public school in a small town, where participation and competitiveness can surge or wane depending on the talent available. Hopedale plants the seeds for its varsity success in the fields at Draper Park. Most put on a glove or throw a ball the first time there, and meet friends they’ll play with for as long as they can.

“You look at Hopedale across any sport, I don’t think they’re weak. Sports is in the fabric of the town,” said Marc Goldman, the Hopedale Baseball board vice president.

Though the youth participation numbers have declined like everywhere, that may have benefitted Hopedale. The town can no longer just play baseball within itself and schedules games with neighboring towns like Milford, Uxbridge and Sutton. Hopedale has won the last three Tondorf tournaments in Medway, as well.

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“It’s smaller but the kids who showed interest in baseball 10 years ago are still sticking around,” Goldman said.

The players who went through the program come back, as well. Hopedale’s varsity team regularly volunteers at winter clinics at MetroWest Sports Center. Levasseur umpires youth games.

“They reach out to us. They want to be involved. They want to do our clinics, think of ideas to fundraise,” Goldman said. “It keeps moving along.”

Swinging big

Many of the players also compete on club teams and travel teams to see even more competition by the time they enter the seventh grade and are eligible for the junior varsity team. About half of the current roster plays some form of year-round baseball.

They can aspire to the game’s highest levels without ever leaving. Hopedale class of 2022 grad William Parker leads Army with 62 RBIs as a sophomore. His classmate Alex Luccini is hitting .365 for UMass Lowell. Tyler Wilke is a freshman at Stevens, and Jacob Smith is in his first year at Saint Michael’s. Sean Ryan is a junior at Nichols.

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“We’ve got some baseball junkies,” Bresciani said. “It’s helpful to have guys that eat, sleep, breathe baseball.”

The Blue Raiders’ fascination with the game allowed Bresciani to drill into the technical aspects of small ball this season. Hopedale needed every tool at its disposal facing a challenging schedule. The Division 5 school played neighbor Milford (Division 2), Bay Path (Division 2), Division 3 top-10 Blackstone Valley, Northbridge (Division 3) and Auburn (Division 3).

Hopedale High School's Noah Smith connects at the plate against Milford, May 17, 2024.

“It’s easy to say we play up because we’re such a small school and everything, but we’ve always competed well with them,” Bresciani said.

They experienced five one-run games this season and won three of them, including in the Central Mass. semifinals against Maynard.

“As a team we’re fairly mentally tough. We don’t really get fazed,” Levasseur said. “We might get knocked down a little bit, but we know that there’s tons of baseball to play and that we’ll be able to bounce back.”

Adjusting expectations

The entire season has been a bounce back after what the Blue Raiders graduated. Bresciani tempered his expectations as much as he could, but that’s challenging when the standard is so high. The goals were to reach the Final Four and win the DVC.

“After having some big wins and where we are right now in the D5 rankings and the standings and everything, I think that we kind of expect to go a little bit far in this tournament,” Bresciani said. “Over the time, our expectations have gotten bigger, but I think that the guys have done a good job of staying focused, and they know what the ultimate goal is.”

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Levasseur said the quiet part out loud.

“I’m a senior, so I want a state championship,” he said.

The Blue Raiders may possess the right mix to finally do it. There are four seniors remaining, but the crop of underclassmen has raised the ceiling. Junior Brayden Lewis is Central Mass’ hits leader with 32 and is second with a .552 average. Sophomore Brady Wajda leads the DVC with 18 RBIs and is hitting .377. Plus Hopedale has three pitchers (Will Adamski, Sam Dalpe and Nathan Montville) with an earned-run average under two. Adamski and Montville have reached double-digit innings.

Many of them know what it’s like to lose a state championship, too. Six players faced Mount Greylock in the 2022 final. They’ve all weathered the rigors of sectional and state tournament runs.

Hopedale High School's Mikey Rutkowski on the mound against Milford, May 17, 2024.

“We’ve always played those big games, and we all want to be in the big moment where we make that game-winning play or that game winning hit,” Hopedale’s Mike Rutkowski said.

They wouldn’t be there if they didn’t enjoy it.

“We just love playing the game. We all love showing up having fun with our friends. I think we all love each other. I think it’s a really tight knit group that we all enjoy coming and playing together,” Levasseur said. “Some of our best friends are on our team. It’s pretty easy to show up when you have a group of guys that are, you know, putting the same amount of effort into you that you’re putting back into the team.”

Contact Kyle Grabowski at [email protected]. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @kylegrbwsk.

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