If Bishop Hendricken baseball is the gold standard in Division I, then Johnston baseball has been the equivalent in Division II. Today, the two teams that have dominated their respective leagues will meet, with each trying to further its run of success.
It’s a clash of two teams that weren’t natural rivals until this season, but they both have one major characteristic in common – they’ve been there before.
The Hawks will open their best-of-three D-I semifinal series against the Panthers at West Warwick’s McCarthy Stadium at 6:30 p.m., with both gunning for another berth in the finals.
Hendricken, the defending state champion, is back in the Final Four for the second consecutive year after missing out in 2011. Johnston, the defending D-II champion, is back in some version of the Final Four for the seventh straight year.
The Panthers moved up to D-I this season after six straight D-II Final Fours, which included runs to the last two D-II titles.
Based on the last half-decade or so, the series is a clash of the state’s two most successful programs.
“They’ve got experience from winning the last two D-II championships,” Hendricken head coach Ed Holloway said. “They’ve got good players, they’re well-coached. I’m not surprised that they came out of that bracket at all.”
Hendricken reached this point by running through the Region 1 Tournament with three consecutive wins, the last of which was a dominating 15-2 victory over Moses Brown to clinch a semifinal berth.
Johnston’s path isn’t dissimilar, as it won three consecutive games without a loss in the Region 4 Tournament. Twice, it beat No. 2-South seed South Kingstown and it also knocked off No. 3-North seed Cranston West.
Whether it’s because of the last few seasons in D-II or this year’s tough playoff slate, it’s clear that the Panthers are battle-tested.
“If they listen to me, they’ll be aware of it,” Holloway said. “I’ve been preaching it for two days now that you can’t look past these guys. They’re tough and they’ve been there before.”
The one glaring difference between the two teams this season is regular season success, as Hendricken was the overall No. 1 seed after an 18-0 record. Johnston went just 7-11 and was actually the No. 14 overall seed and the worst-ranked team in its regional tournament.
But that can be chalked up largely to an adjustment period, as the Panthers were trying to feel their way around the new division. It took them a little while, but they found their groove, winning their final game of the regular season and then running off three in a row once they reached the postseason.
Johnston also wasn’t all that far away from having a significantly better record – it was on the wrong end of three one-run games, and two two-run games.
“During April vacation, I wouldn’t have given this a shot at all,” said Johnston head coach Steve DeMeo. “It was a new experience for a lot of guys. But these guys play a lot of baseball. We’re a baseball town. They’re playing here, they’re playing legion ball, they’re playing AAU. Baseball is big in Johnston, and business is good.”
The discrepancy between the two team’s records seems smaller still when looking at their two regular season meetings. On April 29 they squared off at Johnston, with Hendricken coming away with a hard-fought 2-1 victory.
Dillon Manfredi tossed a complete-game four-hitter for the Hawks in that one, keeping Johnston’s very-capable offense off-balance the whole way through.
Yet, the Panthers’ three-headed pitching group of Steve Perfetto, Justin Simao and Joe Bongiovanni all contributed in that game, limiting the Hendricken bats to just six hits.
On May 23, at Hendricken, the Hawks once again prevailed in a close game, this one 5-2. They scored four runs in the bottom of the fourth inning to break open a 1-1 game, and they held on from there. Hendricken ace Mike King got the win, but once again it wasn’t as though the Hawks waltzed to victory. It was a battle.
“Overall, they’ve got a couple of good, front-line pitchers and they hit the ball pretty well,” Holloway said. “They’re pretty well-balanced. They made the plays against us. They’ve got a good catcher, a good shortstop. First base, the kid Bongiovanni, the two games we played them, he scooped everything over there.”
Offensively, the Panthers are led by brothers Steve and Mike Pennacchia, as well as Ryan McKeon, Bongiovanni and Perfetto. It’s a strong group, top to bottom.
Obviously, though, Hendricken has its standouts as well. Sophomore outfielder John Toppa has been one of the most consistent hitters in the state, while leadoff man Rob Henry has also been dynamic. King, who plays right field when not pitching, has been nearly as good offensively as he has been on the mound – and was recently named the Rhode Island Gatorade Player of the Year – and infielders Matt Murphy, Ed Markowski, Lou Umberto and Jarek Krajewski are solid across the board. Sophomore catcher Gian Martellini, a Johnston resident, is also a big part of the team’s success.
Pitching-wise, King leads the way, with sophomore Mike McCaffrey and Manfredi pitching in some order in the next two spots. Those three have been lights out, as opponents scored just 26 runs in 18 games against the Hawks.
“The pitching has been there all year,” Holloway said.
Also helping Hendricken’s cause is that 15-run outburst against Moses Brown in its most recent game. The Hawks had been struggling some at the plate, as they scored more than five runs just three times in their final eight regular season games, and then scored five and seven in their first two postseason games.
Now, though, they’re feeling good with the bats.
“I thought we played well in that last playoff game,” Holloway said. “Just the way we hit the ball – we hit it hard, used the whole field and it seemed like we had consistency through the lineup. We had been struggling through the middle part of the season doing things like that.”
Hendricken will send King to the mound for game one, while Johnston will likely counter with Bongiovanni.
Game two is scheduled for Saturday at 1 p.m. at McCarthy, and the starters have not yet been determined. A third game would be Sunday at 1 p.m., if necessary.
The Panthers are planning on putting their best foot forward against the mighty Hawks.
“We played them twice and they were two real good games,” DeMeo said. “Defensively, they’re outstanding. Lou Umberto, the shortstop, is incredible. Their catcher, Gian, is from Johnston, he’s real good. The pitching with Mike King, right down the line. They have depth. We haven’t backed down from anybody yet. I don’t think we’ll back down from the green and gold either.”
Hendricken plans to be ready, too.
“I think they’re focused,” Holloway said. “Really, this team has been focused all year. We’re just trying to get back to McCoy and win another championship.”