Bishop Hendricken won its first state baseball championship in 1977. The Hawks have won 17 more since then, and only twice have they been matched up with their rivals from Providence, La Salle Academy, with the championship on the line. The last time was in 2008, when Hendricken won. Before that, the only other time was 1983, when the Rams knocked off the Hawks.
As the Hawks chase No. 19 – and their third in a row – the Rams stand in their way. Hendricken and La Salle each swept their semifinal series to punch their tickets to the best-of-three RIIL state championship series at McCoy Stadium. Game one is set for tonight, with game two on Wednesday and game three, if necessary, on Thursday. All three are scheduled for 6:30 p.m.
“You add the rivalry in, and it’s going to be fun,” said La Salle head coach Geoff Marcone. “If we’re playing a game of checkers, people would show up. We’re excited.”
The two-time defending champion Hawks went 17-1 in the regular season. They had a hiccup in the double-elimination regional round of the playoffs, when they were pushed to a decisive game, but they responded with an 11-0 victory then swept past Cranston West in a best-of-three semifinal series.
Hendricken’s one regular-season loss was to La Salle, who finished 12-6. The Rams lost their second game in the double-elimination portion of the Division I playoffs, but have since caught fire with four consecutive wins.
The Hawks know what they’re up against.
“We’re confident,” said assistant coach Bill Campbell. “We’re just focused on doing what we’ve been doing all year long – defense, timely hitting and hopefully our pitching keeps us in the game. We’re playing against a good team but we’re confident.”
They have reason to be. In the regular season, Hendricken scored more runs and allowed fewer than any team in Division I. They have been pushed in the playoffs – winning their opener by just a run, losing to South Kingstown and needing extra innings to win game one of their semifinal series – but they’ve remained on track.
“We have to stick together as a family, play as a team, like we’ve done all year,” said junior catcher Gian Martellini.
Martellini, Rhode Island’s Gatorade Player of the Year, leads an offense that averaged nearly 10 runs per game in the regular season. John Willette and Ryan Rotondo have emerged at the top of the lineup, with Martellini, John Toppa and Dante Baldelli anchoring the heart of the order. Players like Brady Chant, Sam Boulanger, Kevin Sutyla and Andrew Ciacciarelli have also come up big at times.
“This year, we’ve got to hit the ball,” Campbell said. “If they score eight runs, we’ve got to get nine.”
While Hendricken’s pitching isn’t as dominant as it was last year – when current Boston College pitcher Mike King topped the rotation –it’s been pretty good in its own right. Junior Mike McCaffrey has been the ace and will get the ball in game one. From there, the Hawks will play it by ear, with two of their regular-season starters no longer with the team.
“Mike McCaffrey is going to start the first game and then we’ll take it from there,” Campbell said. “We’ve got the guys. Our strength has been the bullpen. If the starters can get us into the later innings, we’ll be okay.”
In La Salle, Hendricken is facing a team with some of the same qualities. The Rams’ offense may not have as high a profile, but it has scored the same amount of runs in the playoffs as Hendricken’s unit, albeit in one additional game.
“When we’re patient, that’s when we become pretty good offensively,” Marcone said. “I think our biggest key, they’ve got so many good pitchers, we’ve got to be patient and grind out at-bats.”
Pitching has been an even bigger strength. Since losing to Johnston in the double-elimination regional, the Rams won three straight games while allowing a total of four runs. In the semifinals, they beat Cumberland 6-4 ahead of a 1-0 shutout in game two.
Senior right-hander C.J. Dandeneau authored the series-clinching shutout, but the Rams’ ace has been only part of the equation. Junior right-hander Tyler Shemick pitched two complete games with his team’s back against the wall in regional games.
“No one knows about Tyler and that’s okay with me,” Marcone said. “He’s done a fantastic job. Tyler controls the game. He’s very methodical and that works to his advantage.”
Marcone said Monday that he plans to start Shemick in game one. The Hawks have not faced him this season.
Dandeneau would then get the ball for game two.
“This is what C.J. was built for,” Marcone said. “He’s such a competitor. He never gets too high and he never gets too low. I think he’s excited about the opportunity to pitch here.”
The Rams are seeking their first baseball title since 1984, and Marcone knows this team has as good a chance as any.
“Out of all the teams I’ve ever coached, this team really gets team,” Marcone said. “They play for the guy next to them. If they go 0-for-4 and we win, it’s a good day. I’m happy for these kids because they get it.”
The Rams beat the Hawks 6-2 in their most recent meeting, on May 6. Hendricken had won the previous match-up 9-6 in April.
“It’s pretty much in the past now,” said Rotondo, a Hendricken senior. “They’re a new team. We’re both 0-0 now. We’ve just got to get two wins.”
Both teams would like to have a little more momentum. They each finished their semifinal series last Wednesday and have had almost a full week to prepare for the championship.
It’s not an ideal setup but they’ll play the hand they’re dealt.
Two of Rhode Island’s most storied rivals are matched up for the championship. They’ll be ready.
“The rivalry, there’s nothing better than that,” said Chant. “It’s going to be awesome.”