Sweetness Revisited: St. John Paul II Baseball Captures Second Straight State Title (Slideshow)

WORCESTER – Last season, the fuel behind Saint John Paul II’s fire was redemption. It was championship or bust for the senior-laden team, and the Lions used that motivation to capture the schools first ever State Championship.

St. John Paul II's dugout empties upon the final out of capturing the school's second straight Div. 4 state championship. Phil Garceau/Capecod.com Sports

St. John Paul II’s dugout empties upon the final out of capturing the school’s second straight Div. 4 state championship.
Phil Garceau/Capecod.com Sports

This season, the tone was different. Rather than redemption, the Lions carried the “us against the world” mentality after being told they had no chance to repeat as champions.

That philosophy proved to be just as effective, as the Lions captured yet another Div. 4 State title on Saturday afternoon, defeating Smith Academy 8-6 at Fitton Field on the campus of Holy Cross.

The Lions finished at 25-1 to nearly match their 26-1 record of last year, but in two seasons were a combined 51-2.

“This team is defiantly different that the last two years,” senior co-captain Christian Hegarty said, who did not see the field once this season because of his recovery with bone cancer. “This year we weren’t expected to win, we were the underdogs going in from the beginning of the season to the end.

Adding to the Lions’ seemingly never-ending list of motivation was the loss of both head coach Mark Santos’ father, and senior captain Kevin Marsh’s mother during the season, both of which provided rallying point for the young Lions teams.

“People don’t realize the adversity all year long, a new team, I lost my dad during the season in April, Kevin loses his mom in June but these kids kept battling every day,” Coach Santos said. “They never lost sight of what they were trying to accomplish as a team, they embody each other and we have such a mix of seniors and freshman this year, it’s pretty impressive.”

The loss of Marsh’s mother, Donna, hit home the hardest as she passed away 11 days ago during the Lions postseason run. Just four days after the loss, Marsh took to the mound in the Div. 4 South finals, leading the Lions to an 11-0 victory.

Lions' catcher Coleman Fenton and Matt Santos give coach Mark Santos a bath during post-game interviews. Phil Garceau/Capecod.com Sports

Lions’ catcher Coleman Fenton and Matt Santos give coach Mark Santos a bath during post-game interviews.
Phil Garceau/Capecod.com Sports

Once again, Marsh stole the headlines as he was handed the ball in the biggest game of his life, picking up the victory with five and two-third innings of work, allowing six runs (four unearned) and five hits and striking out three.

“It feels unreal, just to do that for my mom and everything that has been going on, its been crazy,” Marsh said after the game. “It helps me keep my mind off everything that’s been going on.”

Early jitters plagued both teams in the first two innings, as the Lions scored three unearned runs in the bottom half of the first inning only for the Falcons to respond with four unearned in the top of the second.

Smith Academy pitcher David Longstreeth retired the first two Lion batters he faced, but a dropped fly ball in left field off the bat Matt Santos kept the inning alive. Marsh followed up with a hard hit ball up the middle, which glanced off the shortstops glove and into shallow center, allowing Santos to score the first SJP run.

Joe Oriola followed up with a single, before Jonny Warden ripped a 3-1 fastball into deep right for a triple, scoring Marsh and Oriola as the Lions roared out to a 3-0 lead.

However, the Falcons returned the favor in the second inning, when a pair of two-out errors kept the inning alive long enough for Joe Afflitto to rip a 2-2 fastball over the head of Eric DelRosso in center. that rip cleared the bases and gave Smith Academy a 4-3 lead.

“It’s one bad inning, you take that inning away, the rest of the game was solid but that is high school baseball and we went through a few blips on the radar screen,” Santos said. “But credit to Kevin, he just kept pounding away, didn’t give up and knew the guys would make the plays behind him.”

St. John Paul II pigpiles amidst the diamond at Holy Cross after winning the state title... Again. Phil Garceau/Capecod.com Sports

St. John Paul II pigpiles amidst the diamond at Holy Cross after winning the state title… Again.
Phil Garceau/Capecod.com Sports

Rather than dwell on just their second deficit of the postseason, the Lions came back strong in the bottom half of the inning and scored three times in the bottom of the second, highlighted by Blake Waters’ two-run single. The lead they took on that single would not be relinquished.

“Fortunately those errors were early enough in the game, so we had plenty of time,” senior captain Matt Santos said. “We just thought to ourselves, we have plenty of at bats to get those runs back and luckily we were able to get them back in the next inning.”

SJP added single runs in the third and fourth to take a 8-4 lead, but the Falcons made one last push to tie the game in the sixth, when three consecutive Smith Academy hitters singled with one out, chasing Marsh from the game.

With the bases loaded, Mark Santos brought in ace Joe Oriola for the five-out save on just two days rest after his complete-game victory in the EMass final on Wednesday.

“I just realized, I live for those situations, so I just relaxed and took a couple of deep breaths and tried to throw strikes,” Oriola said. “He (Santos) didn’t really give me the option, he told me that he might need me for one or two innings if he needed.”

Oriola struck out the first batter he faced, but leadoff hitter John Ferrara made things interesting with a two-out flare single to right to cut the lead to 8-6.

How sweet it is. Phil Garceau/Capecod.com Sports

How sweet it is.
Phil Garceau/Capecod.com Sports

With the tying run on base, Oriola needed eight pitches to retire Afflitto, reached back and fired a 2-2 fastball past him.

“Oh my god, that was everything that I had, that was as hard as I could throw the baseball,” Oriola said.

The Lions’ ace then led off the seventh with a walk, and issued another free pass with two outs in the inning, but forced a fly out to center to end the game.

The win was equally important for Hegarty, who missed last season’s championship victory due to a scheduled chemotherapy session in Boston.

Hegarty, who was declared in remission prior to the season, was in the dugout for a majority of this spring and was on hand for their postseason run.

“It’s definitely a lot different and a lot more exciting, I’m just so proud of these guys and for the school,” Hegarty said. “I’m really speechless right now because I haven’t seen a state championship win for myself. Even though I’ve been a part of one, I haven’t been here to celebrate so it feels good.”

— Story written by Phil Garceau, contributing sportswriter for Capecod.com sports. Follow him on Twitter @pcgarceau

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