|Tim Hopley, coach of the Portsmouth High baseball team, watches senior Mike Montville (right) at batting practice. (Photos By Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe)|
Clippers just keep winning
Defending champions look for another title
The Portsmouth High School baseball team was in foreign territory, heading to the top of the fifth inning and trailing host St. Thomas Aquinas, 2-0.
With a large crowd on hand in Dover, N.H., late last month, the Clippers huddled before taking their at-bats.
Just another regular-season game? Another motivational speech by the coach?
Not for Portsmouth, which was gunning for its 56th straight win.
Tim Hopley has devoted the last 15 seasons to developing the Clippers into a model of success. It’s a program that has not lost a game since the 2007 state tournament.
Hopley paced near the bench. He was getting nervous, which was no surprise to his players. The Clippers average nearly 11 runs per game. A 2-0 hole was, well, something new.
And for once, the coach stood in silence.
“When he’s not talking, you know you have to bear down and get your job done,’’ said Nate Jones, a senior pitcher in his fourth season on the varsity.
Hopley has a reputation of feeling tense. Jones described him as the most “uptight and superstitious person I know.’’
With three years of nothing but winning, Hopley couldn’t help but get nervous as his team went to work in the top of the fifth.
About 20 minutes after the inning started, the Clippers had scored seven runs against their rival, arguably the second-best team in New Hampshire’s Class I division, on their way to a 7-2 win.
The two-time defending Class I champion, Portsmouth (16-0 this season) closed out the regular season with 59 straight wins and was scheduled to face Oyster Valley (7-9) in the first round of the tournament Friday afternoon.
“It’s almost like they don’t believe they can lose,’’ said St. Thomas coach Marc Schoff, “and that something is going to happen down the road and they’re going to win. And that’s what they bring every time to the field, that mentality.’’
“It’s always on my mind,’’ Hopley later said of the winning streak. “I don’t ever want to lose a game. I hate losing.’’
When he arrived at Portsmouth in 1996, he was 24 years old. He had coached a few years of middle school ball, but Hopley was pretty raw and inexperienced.
In his first five years as the varsity coach, wins were scarce. He had envisioned the program becoming successful eventually, but never could have dreamed of what has happened.
“I don’t dream that big,’’ Hopley said. “You have to remember we’re dealing with high school kids. They have bad days and have other things going on their lives. They don’t get too jacked up or get too down; they just keep plugging away.’’
For most of Hopley’s tenure, Portsmouth had petitioned every year to play in Class L, the largest division in the Granite State. But when interest in athletics seemed to plateau in 2007, athletic director Rus Wilson made the decision to return back to Class I, where the school’s enrollment falls in the middle of the pack of other divisional foes.
Since then, the baseball team has earned the top seed in the state tournament each season and captured a pair of championships.
“A lot of people are negative about the streak,’’ said Mike Montville, a senior slugging first baseman. “I mean, we’d like to be in a higher division to see how we would play against the bigger schools, but we can’t help it.’’
Schoff feels that Portsmouth has raised the competition level in Class I. His Saints are 30-4 over the past two seasons, with three of their losses at the hands of the Clippers.
“I think it’s important to understand that the caliber of baseball has improved by having them here,’’ he said. “The bottom line is some of the top programs in Class I have had to improve to compete with a team like Portsmouth.’’
At 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, Montville is built like a classic first baseman whom Hopley called the “prototype of what college coaches look for.’’ He took home Gatorade Player of the Year honors in New Hampshire last season.
But he doesn’t get many chances to show off his skills.
He entered the playoffs with 21 hits this season, good for a .525 batting average, and 10 of his hits have left the park. More astonishing, he’s drawn 20 walks.
“It’s frustrating because I only get one or two good pitches to hit per game and then I get walked twice,’’ he said.
Montville has committed to play at the University of Maryland on a baseball scholarship this fall. His teammate, Nate Jones, will play at Wake Forest on scholarship.
Jones said the team’s success is what appealed to Wake Forest coach Tom Walter.
“He liked that I’ve been winning and I know how to win,’’ said Jones, who owns an 18-0 career record on the mound at Portsmouth. But perhaps more important is keeping the winning streak alive. And with each win, Jones admits the pressure builds.
“It’s kind of a long streak,’’ he said.
Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at email@example.com.