BROCKTON, Mass. -– To understand all the euphoria around a mere semifinal victory –- all the group photos and selfies, all the camera phones peering up to the scoreboard, the ceremonial water jug dunk for the coach, milling around the Campanelli Stadium infield well after the crowds had dispersed –- one has to understand just where this Braintree High team was a year ago.
In 2013, the Wamps were one of several victims Bridgewater-Raynham laid to waste en route to their first MIAA Division 1 State Championship, taking a 12-0 loss on the chin in the South Quarterfinals.
Tonight at Campanelli, with a chance to eliminate B-R from the inaugural Division 1A "Super Eight" tournament –- a tourney that B-R, as the state’s No. 1 ranked team for most of the year, was favored to take -– the Wamps returned the favor with authority, cruising to an all-too-easy 9-2 defeat of the Trojans.
"Last year they smoked us 12-0, so we really wanted them," said winning pitcher Bobby McNiff, who struck out three and allowed three hits and an earned run in seven complete innings. "It felt really good. We knew we could beat them."
That sets up a rubber match with Bay State Conference rival Newton North for the Super 8 Final on Monday afternoon. The Wamps –- the only team to beat North this season, splitting the season series –- must win the next two games to emerge as state champions. Should they beat the Tigers on Monday, that would set up a winner-takes-all final on Thursday.
"I’m so happy for the Bay State Conference," Braintree coach Bill O’Connell said. "[Newton North coach Joe] Siciliano and I were joking around saying, 'Maybe we could meet up'. I thought it might have happened earlier in the whole thing, but I never thought it would be for the state championship."
B-R got on the board first, in the bottom of the second inning, when Virginia Tech commit Joe Freiday was brought home on a sacrifice fly to centerfield by Connor Sullivan. But the Wamps responded with seven straight runs over the next five frames, aided by a mix of advantageous baserunning and deep shots to the power gaps.
Braintree got three back in the top of the third, putting two men on with no outs to start and getting an RBI each from Erik MacDonald (2 for 4, 2 RBI) and Connor Columbus (2 for 5, RBI), then a sacrifice fly from cleanup hitter Matt Bickford for the third run.
The Wamps added another in the fifth when Keane -– after taking two bags on a pickoff error to first -- was brought home on a blooper from MacDonald, dunking the ball opposite field in shallow left for an easy RBI.
After Cal Berman opened the seventh with an RBI single to center Colin Rios drove the proverbial spike with a two-run grounder over second base that fell just out of the grasp of B-R’s diving shortstop, for a 7-1 affair.
"My first three [at bats] I kinda struggled, and I realized I was just thinking too much," Rios said. "That at bat, I just cleared my head, saw more pitches and put one right back up the middle."
The Wamps tacked on two more runs in the eighth inning. First, Scott Creedon took third on a wild pitch, then took home after the ensuing pickoff throw sailed into left field. Two at bats later, pinch hitter Dylan Casserly launched one off the left field wall to score MacDonald.
In three games at Campanelli, the Wamps have looked as comfortable hitting in its cavernous dimensions more than any other, recording the most home runs in the Super 8 tournament and plating 25 runs in three games at the venue. Their other two contests at Campanelli were wins over Catholic Conference powers St. John’s Prep (5-4) and Catholic Memorial (11-5).
"This place is a special crowd, great atmosphere, it’s hard not to get up for a game here," O’Connell said.
Bring the Wood: Along with the Old Colony League and Catholic Conference, the Bay State Conference is one of the few high school leagues in Massachusetts that only allows wooden bats in games between league members. The league’s charter mandates that if two member teams are to meet in the postseason, they will both agree to switch to wood for the contest.
How fitting, then, that the inaugural Super 8 Final –- a tournament that some critics said was set up for parochial schools to dominate –- will be not only an all-public, all-Bay State final, but also an all-wood final.
"I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t rather be playing with aluminum bats," O’Connell conceded. "It’s more fun offense. But we swung it pretty good with the wood bats all year, so we’ll be fine."
Said Rios, "You gotta love the wood bat championship. It’s special."
McNifty: With good movement on his fastball, McNiff was brilliant this evening in pitching to contact, inducing 10 groundouts and eight flyouts as part of his three-hit, three-K performance.
His masterstroke, however, was the way he kept the state’s most feared middle order at bay. Maine-bound junior shortstop Andrew Noviello, hitting out of a designated hitter spot at No. 3, went 0 for 4; Cleanup hitter Freiday, the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year, went 1 for 4 with a stand-up double.
McNiff said he got "a good scouting report" from Stoughton High, one of two teams to beat the top-ranked Trojans during the regular season, and concluded that he would have most success against Freiday with his curves.
"He was mashing my fastball," McNiff laughed.
Against Freiday, McNiff estimates 80 percent of his pitches were curves. McNiff’s best battle with Noviello came in the first, when he caught the quick-twitched junior looking at a pitch low and inside for a called third strike.
Try as he might, McNiff couldn’t muzzle his emotions about nullifying the state’s most explosive 3-4 punch.
"The best moment of my life. It’s really unbelievable," he said.
Box in Jack: Barring a Koufaxian performance down the stretch, B-R's Notre Dame-bound junior righthander Jack Connolly will finish the Super 8 as the tournament's leader in strikeouts (21), including 10 today. At least two-thirds of his K's came via his trademark curveball, a 12-to-6 hammer that, on its best days, falls off the plate and jelly-legs even the most disciplined batters.
With its suddenness and unpredictable late life, Connolly's breaking balls were dancing all over the plate -- for better and for worse. When his curve is moving like it was tonight, Connolly has found success getting batters to chase high heat, a point of emphasis O'Connell detailed with his players.
"It’s no mystery, he likes to throw a lot of curveballs," O'Connell said. "Our guys have some pretty good plate discipline to stay off those high fastballs. His fastball was high, and I can see how teams get caught up in that. They start chasing, they’re looking fastball and they chase high fastball, can’t get their hands on top. Our guys did a great job of staying off that high fastball and trying to stay in a favorable count. He had to bring the ball down to get some strikes."
Said Rios, "We knew he had a really good curve ball. At practices we’d just, curveball, curveball, curveballs, trying to hit the ball the other way, focus on hitting the ball the other way so that when the fastball comes we’d be right on it."
Noviello moved to DH: Noviello got the start for Friday's loss to Newton North, and was pulled after three innings. Today, he was replaced in the field by Kyle Horsman at shortstop, and kept his usual No. 3 spot in the lineup as a designated hitter.
B-R head coach John Kearney said the move was "a no-brainer".
"Number one, he just pitched from 75 pitches the other day, two days ago," Kearney said. "And if we won today, I gotta come back with him. I can't have him out there throwing practice throws between innings. Kyle Horsman's done a great job when he's stepped in, so that was kind of a no-brainer to have Novi be the DH today. He was fine with that. It was a smart thing to do."