CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- A quiet vow was cast over the Phillips Andover Big Blue baseball team.
After losing in the finals of last year's Central New England Prep School Baseball League-Thomas Blackburn Championship Tournament, PA made a unified promise to not let it happen for a second time against Worcester Academy.
With the sting of last year's defeat still tucked away in the minds, the second-seeded Big Blue were hell-bent on taking down the Highlanders any way possible this time around.
With nothing decided after the regulated seven innings, Payton Jancsy broke a 1-1 deadlock by sending an Alex Brickman first pitch fastball deep over the left field fence and give PA a 2-1 victory Saturday evening at Harvard University's O'Donnell Field.
"I saw the fastball coming and just turned on it and the rest is history," said Jancsy. "After the seventh inning, I came back to the dugout and said someone on this team needs to make a difference. To be honest, I had no idea it would be me. Worcester is a great team, so it is truly a dream to beat those guys in my last game here. It is always a battle when you play Worcester and we knew what we were getting ourselves into. We knew if we could match their intensity then we would have a good chance to win this game. All of the guys on this team battled hard all day long."
The triumph marked the 10th time in the 34-year history of this event that Big Blue (17-3) has been crowned champions. They advanced to the finals after shutting out arch-rival Phillips Exeter 3-0 earlier in the day during the semifinal round.
"Payton is a three-year varsity guy for us," PA head coach Kevin Graber said. "He has been through all kinds of battles out there on the baseball field. To see his face rounding second after the home run, and the shock, the surprise, the joy and the happiness, it is a moment he is going to remember for the rest of his life. This season has been a sheer endeavor for all of us and when you win a championship it can never be taken away from you."
In a pitcher's duel between Brickman and Big Blue starter Anthony Redfern, runs, and hits for that matter, were at a premium. The top-seeded Highlanders (17-7) grabbed the lead in the bottom of the second inning after Craig Corliss walked, took second on an errant pick-off attempt by catcher John Simourian and came around to score on Jon Wolf's single.
Having set down PA in order over the first two frames, Brickman, a senior bound for Siena, opened the third by throwing an inside fastball to lefty batter Same Conte. The sophomore quickly turned on the pitch, sending it high over the right field fence to tie matters. Brickman, like Redfern, pitched extremely well, going the distance by allowing seven hits and striking out five.
Over the course of the next three innings, neither offense was able to produce a run despite numerous chances. In PA's half of the fourth, Taylor Beckett singled, moved to second on a ground out, but was thrown out by WA catcher Jordan Gillheeney while attempting to steal third.
In the Hilltoppers sixth, Mariano Ricciardi walked and advanced to second on Seth Learned's SAC bunt. John Crimmin followed by hitting a one-hopper back to Redfern. Alertly, the sophomore quickly threw to third in an attempt to nail the speedy Ricciardi.
Now caught in a rundown, the Hilltopper junior would be tagged out by shortstop Rich Ciufo. But the inning was prolonged after Brickman reached on a single, putting two runners on. Redfern, a native of Easthampton, was able to bear down, getting out of the inning unscathed after inducing Corliss to fly out.
"I came to watch the championship game last year even before I knew I was coming to Phillips," said Redfern. "I've been dreaming of this moment for a long time. I end up going from being a fan on the sideline to one year later pitching in the championship game. It's sort of unreal. It wasn't until the second week in August that Coach Graber called me and told me there was a spot open in the 2018 class and I jumped at it. It's been great here."
Another opportunity would open up for WA in the bottom of the seventh. Pinch-hitter Zack Aresty lined a one out single up the middle, representing the winning run. Redfern (6-1/3 IP, 5 hits, 3 Ks) was then pulled in favor of senior Matt Wesoloski.
Normally a starter in the Big Blue's rotation, the Arlington native had to adapt to life as a reliever rather quickly. Wesoloski immediately got Gillheeney to fly out. Two pitches later, with Aresty taking off, Ryan McDermott lined a ball down the right field line. Conte, PA's right fielder, speared towards the line and made a game-saving catch to push this tilt into extra innings.
"We could have given the ball to Wesoloski or to Anthony to start this game," Graber said. "Anthony is a guy who really competes. He's not the guy who throws the ball 92 miles per hour but boy can he pitch. He keeps hitters off-balanced and gets ahead in the count. But we also knew had that insurance policy by having Wesoloski available in relief. We got a complete game victory in the first game out of Travis Lane and that saved Wesoloski for the second game. We felt that was really big for us."
In the top of the eighth, with one out, Jancsy, a University of Chicago commit, sent a no-doubter well-beyond the 370-foot fence to give PA the lead for good.
But to the Hilltoppers credit, they refused to go quietly into the night. After Wesoloski retired the first two batters, the right-hander served up back to back singles to Crimmin and Brickman. Yet, Wesoloski would not back down. He proceeded to strikeout Corliss to end the game followed up moments later by a raucous victory celebration at the center of the diamond.
"Brickman was outstanding for us tonight," said WA first-year head coach Jim McNamara. "He showed true grit and grinded it out inning by inning. It's to bad we couldn't get that extra run for him. We were inches away in that seventh inning when their right fielder made that incredible catch with our guy getting ready to round third base. Hats off to them, they have excellent defense and their pitchers threw tons of strikes. Our kids never gave up and we just came up one or two hits short from winning the championship."
Lane, Big Blue bump off Exeter
In the first contest of the day, Lane baffled the Big Red with a steady mix of fastballs and curve balls. The Boston College-bound righty held Phillips Exeter to just three hits (two coming in the first inning) while striking out seven.
No. 3 seed PE (15-5) could never quite figure out what was coming out of Lane's hand next. They looked totally confused and uncomfortable inside the batter's box.
"I was trying to keep everything low, hit my corners and let my fielders behind me make the plays," said Lane, now 4-1.
The Big Blue jumped in front 1-0 against PE starter Steve Cerrone in their half of the third. Rich Ciufo reached on a fielder's choice. A double off the bat of Beckett quickly followed, putting two runners in scoring position. A Simourian ground out sent Ciufo home.
Simourian would be heard from again during the sixth. The senior opened with a base hit. Nick Latham then belted a ground rule double, putting runners on second and third. With Michael Kacergis now on the hill for the Big Red, Lane ripped a hard single past the drawn-in infield, scoring both runners.
"I was just trying to get the ball into the outfield," Lane said. "Luckily I was able to find a hole."
PE put one on with one out in the top of the seventh, but Lane set down the next two hitters to finish things.
"Travis was exceptional, especially when he got ahead of hitters," noted Graber. "When he got ahead there wasn't much of a chance for their offense. When he got behind, he still managed to battle and get outs. When you throw a shutout and knock in two insurance runs, I don't know what more you can do to help out a team."
The Big Red saw an opportunity to score in the first inning run go by the wayside following a controversial call from the home plate umpire. With Collin Shapiro standing on third, a Lane curve ball appeared to have bounce off the plate and roll towards the backstop with Shapiro sprinting home. However, it was ruled that PE batter Trevor Cosgrove's half-swing made contact with the ball and deflected off of his foot. Big Red head coach Dana Barbin argued the call, but to no avail.
"I thought Lane pitched really well for them," said Barbin. "Both pitchers pitched good. We just couldn't get any offense going today. I thought we had some poor at-bats in which we chased some pitches. You can't do that against a very good pitcher like him."
Hilltoppers outlast Tabor
In the day's other semifinal, WA appeared en route to a rout after moving ahead by four runs after two innings.
But No. 4 seed Tabor Academy (13-11-1) managed to storm back, putting up a three spot in the third. However, the Hilltoppers had a bit more firepower at their disposal as they went on to claim a 7-3 win.
A two-run double by Brickman in the first inning pushed WA out to a 2-0 lead. The Hilltoppers added to that margin one frame later against TA starting pitcher Jared Shuster (5 2/3 IP, 8 hits, 4 Ks). RBIs by Ricciardi (who went 3 for 4) and Learned made it a 4-0 game.
But the Seawolves would not back down, making a game of it in their half of third against ace hurler Morgan McSweeney. A one out double by Shuster and an infield single from Andrew Gorham had TA in business. After Gorman was picked off, Jeremiah Adams would walk. Senior Josh Hillebracht came to the plate and roped a triple to left-center field gap, closing the deficit to 4-2. Hillebracht would not stand on third for long as he trotted home on Ben McLean's double.
"Tabor has a lot of talented hitters," said McNamara. "We had a tough time getting them out, especially their top and middle of the order guys. Shuster can pitch and he settled in a bit. When they scored those three runs, the momentum was certainly in their hands. But our team, all season, has swing the bats well from one through nine in our order. But against Shuster, you have to work for everything. He is that talented a pitcher."
Following the Seawolves uprising, McSweeney proved to be lights out. The Wake Forest commit allowed just one hit over the final four frames to earn his fifth victory against zero defeats. For the game, McSweeney gave up five hits and fanned eight.
"It was a gutsy effort by Morgan today," McNamara said. "I'm happy with the job he did out there. He ended up throwing a complete game when it didn't look like he would during the early innings. After they scored those three runs, he settled in nicely."
McSweeney's mates certainly made things a bit more comfortable for him in the fifth. After Ricciardi singled, Crimmin then tripled to straightaway centerfield. Brickman followed that up by launching a ground rule double, scoring Crimmin.
WA would add a solo run in the sixth against relief pitcher Adam Billard. Ricciardi stroked a two out double and came around to score on Wolf's line single to left.
"We made a game of it but what are you going to do," said TA head coach Kenny Ackerman. "We were able to get some things off of McSweeney but then they get some runs late to pull away. This group that I have has been very special. We are losing some kids to graduation who have played a vital role in this program over the past three or four years. They'll certainly be missed."