Lightning seldom strikes the same place twice.
On June 9, 2001, however, two Section 10 baseball teams made history on the same day for Section 10.
That was the day Massena and Parishville-Hopkinton both broke through for New York State Public High School Athletic Association baseball championships.
And while several other baseball teams from the section have reached state tournament finals, both before and after, the simultaneous championship runs fashioned by the Red Raiders and Panthers 20 springs ago remain unparalleled.
“The whole season was kind of amazing for us,” said Greg Paquin, the veteran varsity baseball coach at Massena who was serving as assistant coach in the dugout alongside his father and mentor, Darrel Paquin, when the Red Raiders came home from Rome with the NYSPHSAA Class B Baseball Championship plaque.
“Before the season started, Dad and I already knew we had kind of a special group of ballplayers. We were still pretty young and we thought that we might be able to make it to the state finals again by the time they were seniors. Turns out, they had a wonderful year as juniors,” he added. “And, with Parishville-Hopkinton winning their state championship at pretty much the same time, it was a great day for Section 10 baseball for sure.”
The Red Raiders won their breakthrough title at Larry DeLutis Field in Rome, while the Panthers captured the first baseball championship in Section 10 history moments earlier at what is now known as NBT Bank Stadium, less than hour away in Syracuse.
“We’d had a couple of good seasons and going into 2001, the kids set the goal for themselves of winning a state championship,” said Bryan Harmer, who served as head coach of the Parishville-Hopkinton baseball program from 1999-2002 and guided the Panthers to their state Class D title. “I knew we were pretty good, but I didn’t know we were going to be that good.”
“We had mostly sophomores and only three seniors who started that year so I really didn’t know what to expect. They didn’t know they weren’t supposed to win a state championship,” he added. “It’s not easy being that good at baseball. That group put in the work and they deserve all the credit. It was just a great experience for all of us.”
While the Panthers were newcomers to the state playoffs that spring, the Red Raiders had established themselves as a contender at that level under Paquin’s guidance.
Just two seasons before, some of the core members of the Massena squad were part of the first team in the program’s history to advance to a state final, only to finish as runner-ups in Class A, which at the time was the largest of the four classes.
The Massena baseball team dropped back down to Class B for the 2000 season and saw its hopes of playing for the state title game end in a Section 10 tournament loss to arch-rival OFA. But with most of the players returning from that team for the 2001 season, coach Paquin, who died at age 72 in December 2019, raised some eyebrows with his preseason announcement of some lofty expectations.
“At the beginning of the season, we were having our team meeting in the gym locker room before the first practice and coach Paquin came right out and said our goal was to win the state championship,” said Andy Draper, who was a junior utility player for the Red Raiders that spring. “Some of us were like, ‘OK, sure.’ Then he said something like, ‘Why is that wrong?’ That’s when we realized that he was serious.”
Meanwhile, in Parishville, the Panthers got some preseason motivation from assistant coach Dave Richardson, the father of sophomore second baseman Zach Richardson.
“I’m not sure exactly who came up with the idea but at the beginning of the season, I seem to remember Zach’s dad handing out towels with lettering on them that read, ‘Dream it. Believe it. Achieve it.’ That was our goal,” said Aaron Zellweger, who played a lead role on the championship team from the mound and at the plate en route to being named the NYSPHSAA Class D Player of the Year that spring.
“Going into that season, I kind of had a sense that it could be a great one,” he added. “I really didn’t have winning a state championship on my mind but a lot of things clicked that year and it wound up being pretty special.”
The two sectional champions had very much in common that spring.
First and probably foremost, both benefitted from knowledgable and determined head coaches.
“Darrel was about doing all the little things right. If he wasn’t happy with the way we were doing something, we would do it until he was happy,” said Draper, who played some outfield, first base and pitched sparingly that season. “He set the tone for the team. He instilled confidence in all of us and let us know what we needed to do to elevate our level of play to his expectations.”
“Coach Harmer was the one that pulled things all together for us. He demanded a level of respect for the game,” said Zach Richardson, who wound up being a second team All-NYSPHSAA pick at second base that spring. “He always stressed fundamentals and always brought out the best in us. He was one of the best coaches I’ve ever had.”
Both teams also had pitching staffs built around two standouts, who carried the bulk of the workload during the regular season then alternated stellar performances on the mound in the four state tournament games.
For Massena, the junior duo of Jason Raiti and Ryan ‘Bubba’ Toth went a combined 6-0 in the postseason and allowed just six runs.
“Both of them could do whatever they wanted with the ball, especially at states,” said Brett Derouchie, who served as the backstop to his classmates through four varsity seasons.
“They were both right on the day we won. They both threw hard and they had their off-speed pitches moving great. Whenever they were oh-and-two on a batter and wanted to waste a pitch, they knew not to worry. That I would block it,” he added.
While Zellweger was the ace on the mound for the Panthers, senior lefty Matt Lindsey effectively filled the secondary role throughout the regular season and through the playoffs as well.
“Aaron could really bring it from the right side and Matt didn’t throw as hard but had great command of his pitches coming from the left,” Harmer said. “They really complemented each other well.”
Along with having lineups consisting of just three seniors and relying heavily on the efforts of their underclassmen, both teams were spurred to postseason success by regular season losses.
The Red Raiders were riding an 11-game win streak heading into the homestretch of the NAC Central Division campaign when they dropped a 6-4 decision to a capable Norwood-Norfolk squad that went on to win the Section 10 Class C title that spring.
For the Panthers, the regular season wake-up call came on a cold day in early May when they suffered a one-run loss to an undermanned St. Regis Falls squad in an NAC East Division matchup on their home diamond.
“The temperature was in the 30s that day and there were some patches of snow,” Richardson said. “It was a pretty ugly scene all-around and after the game in the locker room, coach Harmer gave it to us pretty good.”
“That game was a turning point for us though,” he added. “We were probably a little full of ourselves and that loss was what we needed to bring us down to earth. We got where we needed to go after that.”
RED RAIDERS LOOK BACK
The Red Raiders began their week-long trek to the state Class B title by claiming the Section 10 title via a 10-0 win over Gouverneur, avenging an early-season loss to the Wildcats in the process. They opened the state tournament the afternoon of June 4 at Saranac Central where they went up against Section 7 champion Plattsburgh High. Continuing their late-season assault against opposing pitching, the Massena nine pounded out a 12-1 win over the previously undefeated Hornets.
“Plattsburgh was supposed to be pretty strong but we beat up on them,” Paquin said. “After that game, I started thinking more seriously that we had a good chance of winning it all.”
The next two games would provide much more drama for the Red Raiders. In the quarterfinals, they went up against Section 3 champion Christian Brothers Academy of Syracuse, a team that had generated nearly 300 runs in their previous 26 games, and responded by crafting a 3-0 win at Clarkson University, as Raiti and the defense survived some early jitters in handing the Brothers their only shutout loss of the season.
That win earned the Red Raiders their second trip to the state final four in three years as they headed to Rome.
In the semifinal round matchup against Section 5 champion Pittsford-Mendon which was played at DeLutis Field, Massena overcame an early deficit as Toth and the defense settled down to shut out the Vikings over the final six innings while Jon Belisle, one the three seniors on the roster that season, delivered the key hit in the fifth inning that propelled the Red Raiders to a 2-1 win.
“I remember their pitcher threw a hanging curveball. I just sat back and hit it,” recalled Belisle, who was the team’s starting center fielder and currently works as an electrician in the Massena Central School District. “I ran out of the box thinking it was still in the ballpark. Every once in a while I’ll see Greg (Paquin) in the hallway at school and he’ll say something like, ‘There’s the guy who hit the biggest home run in school history.’ I just got lucky.”
“I don’t know if that ball that Jon hit in the semis has landed yet,” Derouchie said.
Belile’s good fortune boosted the Red Raiders into the state final for the second time in three years but unlike their previous appearance in the title game, they struck early and steadily pulled away to a 10-2 win over Section 1 champion Harrison.
“I think one of the differences from the 1999 team is that we did not have a weak spot in our batting order,” Paquin said. “We had 12 or 13 guys on that team that could have been starters so if one started to slump, there was always someone else who could slide right into the lineup and contribute.”
In the championship game win, all nine starters had at least a hit, a run scored or an RBI while Raiti scattered five hits to earn the complete-game victory.
“Actually, more than anything, it was a big relief for my father,” Paquin said. “After we won the championship game, he gave me a hug and the first thing he said was, ‘Finally.’ It’s not like anybody wants to live in the past, but that whole season is just a special memory and I feel very blessed that I was able to help Dad win a state championship.”
With the majority of its starting lineup returning for the 2002 season, the Red Raiders won a second straight Section 10 Class B title and advanced to the state final four for the fourth time in five years with back-to-back wins over Plattsburgh and Section 3 champion Clinton before falling to eventual state champion WT Clarke of Section 8 in the semifinals.
“I think that before we won states, people from other parts of the state thought we were just a bunch of hockey players who play baseball with hockey sticks,” Derouchie said. “We really wanted to give Coach Paquin his championship and we proved that baseball teams from up here could win it all.”
PANTHERS LOOK BACK
The Panthers earned their way to the state Class D semifinals with a lopsided 14-3 decision over Section 7 champion Moriah in the opening round followed the next day by a scrambling 4-3 come-from-behind win over Section 2 champion Waterford.
“We were supposed to play our first game in Lake Placid on a Monday. We pulled up and the skies just opened up and we turned around and went home,” Harmer said. “The next day, we got right back on the bus and headed to Saranac. Our bus pulled up to the field at Saranac Central and I had no clue what to expect. We had a bunch of young kids who had never really been through anything like this before.”
“Well, we jumped off the bus hitting the baseball and the game was pretty much over early on,” he added. “I remember thinking after the game, hey, we’re not bad.”
With the abrupt change in schedule due to the weather, the Panthers had little time to celebrate their first state baseball tournament win, traveling more than 150 miles away to Corinth the next day where they went up against Section 2 champion Waterford in the quarterfinals. The Panthers trailed 3-2 heading into the top of the seventh inning and were down to their last out before rallying to pull off a 4-3 comeback win.
“I remember standing at the top step of the dugout and thinking about how we’d had a heck of a season and that we had a lot to be proud of,” Harmer said. “Next thing you know, Aaron Hopkins, who was easily the fastest guy on the team, gets hit by a pitch. Then, Zach Richardson hits a shot and Aaron thought it was out of the park and didn’t get going right away and wound up coming in just ahead of the tag for the tying run. Aaron Zellweger came up and hit a bomb to left field and Zach came in with the run that put us ahead 4-3.”
The baseball trip of a lifetime for the Panthers followed on Friday, where they first attended the annual champions dinner in Utica before traveling to Syracuse the following morning to face Section 1 champion Haldane at the former P&C Stadium.
“When we first walked into the stadium in Syracuse, we were all a little wide-eyed,” Harmer said. “We had to have that chat where it was still just a baseball field. The distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate was still 60 feet, 6 inches and the distance between bases was still 90 feet.”
In what proved to be a pitcher’s duel, the Panthers outlasted the Blue Devils 2-1 in nine innings with Zellweger crafting a complete-game four-hitter and knocking in both runs.
“What I remember most about that game is that one of our seniors, Rob Lamica (Wiley), who was our ninth batter, scored both runs,” Zellweger said. “That was the kind of team we had, guys kept coming up big at one point or another.”
“Haldane had this big lefty who could really bring it but Aaron was lights out the whole game,” Harmer said. “It was just good, pure baseball. After the game, I got the guys together and said to them, ‘Let’s just go out and win it all.’”
Standing in the way of the state championship was Section 6 champion Ellicotville and with Zellweger having been pushed to his limit in the semifinal, the Panthers started Matt Lindsey on the hill for the final.
The Eagles put up five runs in the first inning, but as was the case throughout their postseason, the Panthers rose above the adversity in posting a rollercoaster 11-9 win.
“We came into the dugout after giving up the five runs and coach Harmer just looked at us and said, ‘Guys, we’ve got them right where we want them. Just hang in there.’” said Richardson, who relieved Lindsey in the sixth inning. “Matt Lindsey’s pitching got us through the next innings and our bats all started to come around. It was just up-and-down the whole game.”
The Panthers countered the slow start by taking the lead with a six-run barrage in the bottom of the second. Tied 9-9 going into the sixth, Lindsey singled and scored the go-ahead run in front of a double by sophomore outfielder Matt Bailey, who would come around to tack on the insurance run on a wild pitch.
“Zach came in and threw just knuckleballs. We got a couple of groundball put-outs. He got us out of a bind,” Harmer said. “Before the start of the seventh, I knew Aaron was eligible to go one more inning. I looked at him and said, ‘What have you got left?’ He just said, ‘I’ve got enough to win.’ That was all I needed to hear.”
Zellweger went on to provide a scoreless inning of relief and pick up the save but not without getting continued defensive support.
“The first guy up got on base somehow and the next guy hit an absolute rocket to second base and Zach made the play for the first out. If he doesn’t make that play, we would have been in trouble,” Zellweger said.
“I missed the second out,” Harmer said. “I had to go to the bathroom so bad and while I was in there, I heard an absolute roar when we got it. When I came back out, the next batter hits a groundball to our shortstop, Steve Cool, and he wheels and deals to Matt Lindsey, who had moved to first base when Zach came in to pitch, and the rest is history.”
The final out offered a bit of redemption for Cool, who overthrew first base on a similar play earlier in the inning.
“I was just glad that I got a second chance,” Cool said. “Getting that final out is definitely something I’ll always remember. Winning states was something that not a lot of people can even imagine.”
“When Steve threw over to first for the out, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my god, did we just do this? Did we really just win a state championship?’” Zellweger said. “I looked up and Dennis Snell was running out to the mound and we all were in a big pile with Dennis winding up on the bottom.”
“I remember I sat with the championship plaque on the bus on the way back and I fell asleep for a little while,” he said. “I woke up and coach Harmer looked over to me and said something like, ‘Nothing beats falling asleep with a state championship trophy next to you.’ It was a great feeling for sure. It was a total team win. We definitely had a good run.”
The Panthers successfully defended their sectional title in 2002 and earned a chance to defend their state championship but fell to Moriah of Section 7 in the quarterfinals after downing Section 2 champion Waterford for a second straight year in the first round.
“The whole week was pretty awesome. We were like a pro team. We were playing games just about every day and we were going all over the place by bus. I think that helped bring us together even more,” Richardson said. “It was so surreal how everything came together in 2001. I think about it all the time. It’s definitely a unique feat. Whenever I have a conversation with someone and we start talking about accomplishments, winning a state championship in baseball is one of the first things I mention.”
SPORTS EDITOR’S NOTE: At the time of the interviews; Steve Cool ran his own contracting business in the Syracuse area, Brett Derouchie was working in the NYS Department of Corrections as a sergeant at the Ogdensburg Correctional Facility, Andrew Draper was teaching mathematics at Jefferson Community College in Watertown, Zach Richardson lived just outside of Saratoga Springs and managed security programs for the Target Corporation, and Aaron Zellweger was working for a wine and spirits distributor in the state of Oregon.