It would be no surprise to sports fans around the area to find that St. John’s Shrewsbury and St. Peter-Marian are running out onto some field or track or court somewhere a bunch of talented young men (or women) about to win a conference title or vie for a state championship in something.
That it’s baseball season and the Pioneers and Guardians are regarded among the top teams in not only Central Mass. but the state surely serves as even less of a revelation.
With such well-stocked rosters, though, featuring college- and prep-bound stars like Jared Wetherbee, Pat Gallagher, Jake Rosen and Jonathan Gonzalez, it may sneak up on some folks when they realize the best is likely yet to come.
“We’re a very young team,” said seventh-year SPM coach Ed Riley, who knows a thing or two about young, rising stars in the Seven Hills. “We’re up and coming, and we only have four seniors on the roster this season. We’re looking at big expectations for the younger kids over the next couple of years.”
Riley hit .515 as a senior for the Guardians in 1988 when he won the state player of the year award. The ace southpaw with a 33-win, 1-loss, 1.57-ERA career at SPM — which included a 1987 state title — was a sixth-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox that summer and spent eight years in the organization reaching triple-A Pawtucket.
“Our goal is to continue the tradition of winning that’s been here the last 40 years. We expect to be competitive and get to the playoffs and make as much of a splash as we can,” said Riley, whose son, Jack, a five-year varsity Guardian, is a redshirt freshman left-handed pitcher at UConn.
But the core of Riley’s team is indeed a year, or more, shy of graduation. SPM junior outfielder P.J. Barry had a .476 batting average earlier this week, while classmate Christian Walsh was hitting .389. Sophomore pitcher Jake Gigliotti had a 2.69 ERA.
“The junior class is a strong class all around,” Gonzalez said. “They’re a tough, tough class.”
Gonzalez, a first baseman/pitcher headed to Division II Franklin Pierce University, said junior Joe Powers has tremendous talent getting a jump on fly balls to the outfield. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Down the road in Pioneer Country, junior Ian Seymour has already been one of the area’s top players for a couple years, is hitting .452 this season, committed to Div. I Virginia Tech — and he’s coming back next summer. He’s joined by classmates David Turco of Shrewsbury (.484), and catcher Jack Gardner of Jefferson (.367).
“I think our team will be loaded,” St. John’s athletic director Patrick White said. “I think they’re going to be very, very good.”
On Friday, May 13, the Pioneers sent freshman Nicholas McDonald to the mound to take on Doherty Memorial High School. White described McDonald as “a great athlete, a wonderful kid, and a good student,” who is throwing the ball very well.
McDonald pitched a complete game, striking out eight and walking none in a 5-1 win.
The Guardians were 10-5 headed into a Tuesday, May 17, afternoon tilt with Marlborough; the Pioneers 13-2 with Algonquin on their plate yesterday — and likely both squads had each other on their minds as the SPM-SJ season rematch hits the 781 Grove St. diamond Thursday afternoon (May 19, 4 p.m.).
St. John’s beat St. Peter-Marian, 7-5, on May 9 in Shrewsbury. The Guardians held a 5-4 lead before the Pioneers scored three unanswered runs in the fifth and sixth innings.
Gonzalez, who also played four years of football, said over the course of the sports seasons the rivalry between St. John’s and SPM grows, reaching a fever pitch in the spring.
“No matter when we play or what sport, it’s always a great game and they’re always tough to play,” Gonzalez said.
“It’s one of the oldest Catholic school rivalries in the country in almost every sport. It’s two very, very strong schools that have kids that play very hard,” White said in a phone interview last week. “A lot of these guys have been competing against each other since they were smaller, and now they’re playing against each other in high school. I think it’s really neat.”
St. John’s was ranked No. 2 in Massachusetts by ESPNBoston, which pegs the Pioneers as one of the likely participants in the Super 8 high school baseball tournament, an invitational, double-elimination tournament featuring the top Division 1 teams in the state. SPM was No. 12.
“We’ve told the kids not to look ahead to the Super 8 or the districts. We’re in the middle of our season right now, so I don’t really want them thinking ahead three weeks,” Riley said.
Wetherbee, the lightning lefty from Sturbridge, and Rosen, a slick-fielding power-hitting shortstop of Northborough, were named to ESPN Boston’s midseason all-state team. Senior outfield Sam Shaw of Brimfield is also a top hitter and team leader.
“We take each game as it comes,” Rosen said. “We don’t look past anyone, especially SPM. We’ve got a tough game coming up, and that’s really all we are focused on.”
Rosen told Prep Baseball Report after he committed to Virginia Tech in 2014 that Jack Riley was the toughest pitcher he ever faced. Of course he’s never stepped in the box against Wetherbee in a varsity game: the ace who’s headed to prep powerhouse Avon Old Farms in Connecticut has struck out 54 batters in 27 innings this season.
“For us seniors, it’s really just about making sure we get [to the Super 8]. We will figure it out once we are there,” said SPM’s Gallagher, who was hitting .400 with 12 RBI and had 3 wins on the mound to go with a 1.00 ERA.
Gallagher signed a National Letter of Intent to play baseball for Long Island University.
“[St. John’s] is a great team. They deserve the number one rank in the state,” Gonzalez said. “We need to come out and give them a tough game just to show everyone in the state that we’re a good team.”
“This could be the biggest game of our season,” Gallagher said. “After our loss on Sunday, we really have to win out in order to make the Super 8. And we know that going in.”
Other college roster-bound Guardians include catcher Josh Delsignore, who is heading to Siena College, and Matthew Demma (2-1, 2.92 ERA), who plans to play at St. Joseph’s College in Maine.
St. John’s alum and former baseball standout Brian Abraham (class of 2003) has a unique perspective on the rivalry: he attended St. Peter-Marian in junior high before transferring to St. John’s.
Abraham, now the Boston Red Sox assistant director of player development, compared the rivalry between the schools to the one in the NFL between the New England Patriots and New York Jets. Guess which team is the Jets.
“We had some heated games. The benches cleared one year. We circled it on our calendar. It was such a rivalry in every sport we played against each other,” said Abraham, who was the starting catcher on the Pioneers’ 2002 state championship team. “I think St. Peter-Marian thought it was a bigger game for them to win than it was for us. We felt we would win, and they wanted to win.
“It was always Purple versus Red. It was about as competitive of high school sports as I can remember in terms of two teams desperately wanting to beat another team.”
In the unfortunate event that you’re unable to make Thursday’s game, then, take heart in knowing you’ll almost definitely be able to catch an even better one between the Pioneers and Guardians next year.