BY KYLE BRENNAN
Asked to reflect upon his last six months of baseball, Prospect native Jason Claiborn came up with one word.
“Unforgettable,” said the 2020 Woodland High grad and rising junior at Eastern Connecticut State University.
Claiborn’s whirlwind baseball year started with him becoming the only underclassman to earn a starting position with the Warriors, continued with him helping Eastern win its first Division III national championship in 20 years, and ended with him becoming the leading hitter on the New Britain Bees, a team in the summertime Futures Collegiate Baseball League.
Eastern has always been one of the top baseball programs in Division III, so earning the Warriors’ starting right field position on a squad where every other starter was a senior or graduate student was an accomplishment in itself.
But then, Eastern put together one of the strongest collegiate baseball seasons imaginable, going 49-3 to win the NCAA Division III national title — and they did it by winning their last 23 games, including every one of their games in the postseason.
“The farther we got in the playoffs, we kept feeling better and better, and eventually it started to feel like we just couldn’t lose before reaching our goal,” Claiborn said. “I can’t describe how much it meant to me to have the season that we did with the team that we had. Everyone bought in and knew what it takes to be great. We were a very close-knit group so I’m happy that we’ll be linked to this team forever.”
Claiborn said he had to shake off a tough start at the plate before he settled in. The sophomore finished the reason with a .329 average and a .815 OPS with 47 hits, 38 runs and 25 RBI in 44 games played.
“I think it was about just sticking to my approach,” said Claiborn, a left-handed hitter. “The first half of the year I was slumping a bit, but through it all, I kept to my approach of hitting and eventually I fell into a groove. Offensively, everyone had a role on the team, and as a contact guy, mine was to get on base however I could.”
The former Woodland standout, who helped the Hawks reach the 2019 Class M semifinals before losing his senior season due to the pandemic, saved his best for last this spring. In five games at the Division III national tournament at Perfect Game Field in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Claiborn was 6 for 17 with six RBI, three runs and four walks.
His top performance in the national tournament came in the opener against Baldwin Wallace, where he had an RBI single in the seventh and a three-run triple in the eighth to lead the Warriors to a 10-3 win. In the first game of the championship series against defending national champion Salisbury, Claiborn reached base four times, including a bases-loaded walk in the fifth and an RBI single in the seventh in an 11-6 win.
Later in the day, Claiborn was 1 for 3 in Game 2 against Salisbury, a 3-2 win that clinched Eastern Connecticut’s first national championship since 2002. Claiborn said he constantly felt support from home during the run.
“It was awesome,” Claiborn said. “The more we won and the closer we got, the more people started to follow us and tune in. When we got to the [national tournament], it felt like we were playing for something bigger than just Eastern Connecticut but Connecticut as a whole. The support that we got from home made it so much more special.”
There wasn’t much downtime for Claiborn after the national championship, though. He made his debut for the New Britain Bees on June 22 and eventually became the team’s leading hitter with a .431 average, tallying 25 hits and 11 runs in 17 games. He posted a .514 on-base percentage and a .945 OPS.
The Bees finished the regular season as the No. 2 seed in the four-team playoffs but lost in the league semifinals.
“It was a lot of fun being able to play baseball with so many great baseball minds and talents,” Claiborn said. “It was a pleasure to play against some great competition and meet a bunch of new baseball players that I can now call friends.”
When Claiborn returns to Willimantic for his junior year at Eastern, he’ll find himself in a new position as one of the few returning players with a wealth of experience.
“I hope to be someone who my teammates think is approachable and can come to, regardless of their age or experience level,” Claiborn said. “With losing a lot of guys from last year’s squad, I want to be someone who people can look up to in the way that I looked up to so many of my teammates who were on last year’s squad.”
BY KYLE BRENNAN