Kevin Hickey was there through a lot of the tough times for the Warwick Vets baseball program. He was a part of 2010’s lackluster three-win campaign, and he was a key member of 2011’s underwhelming two-win showing.
But now, after the ’Canes eight-win 2012 season, Hickey can smile a little wider when he looks back on his playing career. He doesn’t just have to think about that rough two years in which his team won a combined five games.
There are suddenly some good times he can think about too.
Because make no mistake about it – even with the sub-.500 record of 8-10, 2012 was an overwhelming success for Vets baseball.
The ’Canes made the playoffs for the first time 2009, and the first time in Hickey’s three-year tenure as a varsity contributor.
“It was awesome,” Hickey said last Thursday, after Pilgrim eliminated Vets from the postseason. “I had a ton of fun with this team. This team was awesome. The coaches were great, and I’m sad to go out, but at least we’re doing it on a somewhat high note.”
The transformation from borderline laughing stock to Division I playoff team started early this season, almost from the minute the team stepped on the practice field.
New head coach Nolan Landy, who took over for long-time head coach Dave Croll, made it clear that the ’Canes were going to do things his way.
It turned out to be the right way.
“There was a different intensity, and he demanded a lot more respect,” Hickey said of Landy. “He kept everybody in line.”
Under the eye of Landy and with the help of assistant coach Scott Bailey, who left his post as an assistant with the Pilgrim team to come coach with his friend Landy, the transformation started almost immediately.
“Baseball is a mental game,” Landy said. “You’ve got to get mentally tough. I think that’s the biggest thing we changed. The x’s and o’s are the x’s and o’s. The plays are the plays. But as far as being mentally ready to play in practice and games, I think that’s the biggest difference. That’s what we focused on.”
Vets started the season off 1-0 with a 9-4 win over Barrington. It hit a rut when it dropped its next five games, but any outside observer could see that the team was getting better. Three of those losses were by one runs, and three of them came to teams that ended up making the playoffs.
The ’Canes were so close. They just needed to get over the hump.
Then came the turning point.
On April 20, Vets traveled to play defending state champion Cranston West. With Hickey on the mound, the ’Canes shocked the Falcons 3-1 to pick up their second win of the year.
“The West one was a big one,” Landy said. “We were kind of on a down skid, and (Hickey) came in there and threw a 3-1 game. They started to believe at that point.”
It showed. Behind dominant pitching from Hickey and fellow senior Shane Johnson, Vets caught fire and became one of those prototypical teams that nobody wanted to play.
The ’Canes beat Coventry – a team that just recently qualified for the state’s final four – 11-10 in a non-league game, and they followed that up with a 3-1 win over playoff-bound Portsmouth.
After losing to North Kingstown, Vets went on a three-game winning streak, beating Barrington, East Providence and Cranston East in succession while allowing a total of one run over that span.
“These guys gave me their very best every single day,” Landy said. “That’s from the time we started until now. That’s all I asked for. Each and every guy that’s got that uniform gave me everything they had. I’m very proud of each and every one of them.”
In a matter of days, the ’Canes had thrust themselves into the middle of the playoff picture. Around Warwick, the ’Canes’ accomplishments weren’t going unnoticed.
“I’ll tell you what – they’ve done a great job with that team,” Pilgrim head coach Ed Colvin said “You look at Vets, and they’d kind of hit the skids a little bit. Then (Landy and Bailey) came in, and they’ve done a great job. They were a competitive team against the best teams in the state.”
At that point, the season was already a success. But Vets wasn’t satisfied. It lost a heartbreaker to Pilgrim before going out and battling with Bishop Hendricken – perhaps the state’s top team – before losing again.
With two games left in the regular season, Vets was 6-10 and needed to win both to have any shot at making the postseason.
But armed with the newfound confidence that trickled down from their head coach, that task wasn’t quite as daunting as it would have been in the past. The ’Canes squeaked out a 6-5 win over Toll Gate and then finished the season with a 4-2 victory over Cranston West – again – to clinch a playoff berth. After starting out 1-5, Vets went 7-5 in its last 12 regular season games.
“We believed all along,” Landy said on Friday. “We knew we had some holes, but these guys all jelled. Nobody expected us to be here right now, but we are.”
Once in the postseason, Vets battled before losing 3-2 to fourth-seeded South Kingstown, and then it bowed out to Pilgrim on Friday.
After the game, Landy huddled his team together. He walked around in a circle and personally shook each player’s hand. There was no head hanging. There were no tears.
There was pride.
“From the last two years, we won five games,” Hickey said. “We won eight this year. Making the playoffs was a great way to end it. I’m just so happy to be here.”
And just because Hickey won’t be back, and neither will fellow seniors Johnson and Tyler Rice, Landy and his team certainly plan to be.
“The future looks bright over at Warwick Vets, I’ll tell you that,” Landy said.
And if the future is indeed bright, 2012 will be the year that everyone will look back on fondly. That’s when the good times began.
Kevin Pomeroy is the assistant sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.