All season long, the title of best high school baseball team in the state of Rhode Island was never really in doubt.
And when left fielder John Toppa camped under and caught Brian Cox’s seventh inning line drive on Thursday night for the final out of the state championship series at McCoy Stadium, the best baseball team in Rhode Island could finally celebrate.
For the second consecutive year, the Bishop Hendricken Hawks are state champions.
Behind a steady start from sophomore Mike McCaffrey, an opportunistic offense and a solo home run from series MVP Eddie Markowski, the Hawks knocked off North Kingstown 7-4 to sweep the best-of-three series.
Hendricken won game one 5-1 on Wednesday.
“They all feel good, but this one’s special,” Hendricken head coach Ed Holloway said. “It’s special for the seniors – all the guys, but especially the seniors. They’ve been great for the program. We’ve got tremendous tradition and they’ve added to it.”
The two victories brought Hendricken’s final record, including playoffs, to 25-1. The team’s 18-0 regular season was only its third unbeaten season in the last 20 years.
The Hawks’ one loss came in the state semifinals, when they dropped a 5-4 decision to Johnston in nine innings. Other than that, it was one of the most dominant seasons in program history.
“You know how they tell you, ‘You don’t know what to say?’ Well I don’t know what to say,” McCaffrey said.
McCaffrey, Hendricken’s No. 2 starter all season long, followed Mike King’s shutdown game one performance with one of his own. He pitched six-plus innings, allowing six hits and four earned runs, three of which came home after he was pulled from the game with the bases loaded in the seventh.
But other than a rough final inning, McCaffrey stepped up to the plate to help Hendricken close out the season with a championship.
“He’s cool as a cucumber, is the saying,” Holloway said. “He really isn’t fazed by anything. He does a great job for us. He’s had a great year as a sophomore.”
That said, there were a few tense moments before the game was finally in the books. With Hendricken holding a 7-1 lead entering the bottom of the seventh, McCaffrey walked two men and hit a batter to start the frame before being pulled for Dan Thadeio.
Thadeio immediately hit the first man he saw, Austin Barry, and then gave up a single to Tyler Lamarre to make the score 7-3 before being pulled for Matt Murphy.
There was still nobody out, with Tyler Rains, the Skippers’ No. 5 hitter, coming to the plate representing the tying run.
Then came the biggest play of the night. On Murphy’s third pitch, Rains hit a ground ball to the left of second baseman Ryan Rotondo, who had just entered the game to replace Murphy at second base.
Rotondo fielded the ball cleanly, spun and fired a strike to shortstop Lou Umberto at second. Umberto – one of the best defensive shortstops in the state – quickly made the turn and threw to first for a double play.
“That double play was huge,” Murphy said. “Give it up to Ryan and Lou. Once that happened, I was feeling pretty confident in what we could do. We’ve got the best defense in the state out there.”
A run came home on the play, but Hendricken was just an out from victory. Cox then lifted the ball to Toppa in left, and the Hawks poured onto the field and mobbed Murphy on the pitcher’s mound.
“It feels great as a senior,” Umberto said. “Going out like this is unbelievable. I’ve been playing with a lot of these guys since Little League and I’ve been playing against them for years. It’s unbelievable just to be together and win. It’s unreal.”
Early on, Hendricken took control of the game gradually. It went up 2-0 in the second inning without the benefit of a hit off of North Kingstown starter Billy Young, as senior captain Rob Henry was hit with a pitch with the bases loaded, and Toppa worked a bases-loaded walk.
The Hawks made it 5-0 the next inning. After Young gave up a single to Gian Martellini and hit Nick Boland, he was pulled for Alex Tedesco. Jarek Krajewski greeted him with a bunt that the first baseman Lamarre threw away trying to get Martellini at third. That brought one run home, and two batters later Umberto singled to bring home another.
Finally, Toppa beat out a ground ball to shortstop for an infield single and another RBI, making it 5-0.
“You can call it luck, but if you don’t capitalize on their mistakes you’re not making anything of it,” Markowski said.
McCaffrey made the lead hold up, stranding five runners in the first four innings, with North Kingstown only getting one run during that span, which came on a two-out single by Barry in the third.
“North Kingstown is a really good team, and I felt like I had to match what Mike (King) was doing,” McCaffrey said. “That’s hard to do, but he sets the tone.”
Hendricken added a sixth run in the fourth on a Boland single, before Markowski, who had four hits in the series on his way to MVP honors, led off the fifth with a first-pitch solo home run to right field.
“I was sitting fastball,” Markowski said. “It was good to feel an at-bat when there wasn’t a lefty pitching. There was a righty pitching and I got a fastball letter high and crushed it.”
In the seventh, Hendricken ran into that small bout of trouble before slamming the door.
The championship was the Hawks’ 12th in the last 17 years.
They’ll graduate Markowski, Henry, Thadeio, Umberto, Murphy, King, Dillon Manfredi, Boland, Jake Newberry, Bobby Lineberger, Mat Ciociola and Krajewski.
And they’ll all leave as champions.
“These kids came in with a great attitude right from the beginning,” Holloway said. “Even last year, we worked hard in the summer and at the end of the year I have a meeting with the returning players. They were all talking about winning it next year. They just expect to win.”