WORCESTER — One strike away from the first state baseball title at North Reading High School since 1974, Ryley Warnock wound up and hummed a fastball high and away in the bottom of the seventh inning Saturday afternoon.
Mount Everett’s Ethan Chamberlain lunged at strike three.
What ensued was a fleet of Hornets players flooding the field and sprinting over to the North Reading faithful, who were up off their seats raising signs and posters at Hanover Insurance Park. Lisa Marcinko and Denise Faraca, daughters of legendary coach Frank Carey, were there too, along with their husbands, Mark and David, respectively, and his five grandchildren to see the longtime skipper close out another banner season. Many of his former players and teammates made the trip out to Holy Cross.
The celebration didn’t end there.
The Hornets were welcomed back to North Reading by four firetrucks and two police cars while many others in town pulled over in their cars to cheer on the Division 3 state champs.
“It was quite a reception,” said Carey, who earned career win No. 697 with the 8-4 victory over Mount Everett Regional of Sheffield. “We were all surprised, and it was something that I’ll always remember.”
A similar scene played out on Friday afternoon in Georgetown, where the Division 4 state champion Royals lined up at Harry Murch Park to celebrate their crown captured three days earlier and honor a hometown hero returning from his one-year tour in Afghanistan: Air Force Colonel Kevin Kennedy.
“I made sure [the players] all walked up to him and said thank you because he’s a big supporter of the youth program and what we’re all about,” said Georgetown coach Justin Spurr, whose squad topped Harwich, 11-1, in the state final. “It’s good for the kids to see something like this. In all that they do and what they want, it’s just good to see why they can actually do it.”
And in Malden, Mayor Gary Christenson declared Friday “Blue and Gold Day” to salute the march of the Golden Tornadoes’ girls’ softball team to the state final against unbeaten Milford Saturday night at Worcester State.
Malden lost a thriller in nine innings, 1-0, but coach John Furlong’s squad developed a following with their memorable run.
At North Reading, the road to another crown was not as easy as Carey initially might have thought.
Named varsity coach in 1968, he led the Hornets to state titles in 1969, 1970, and 1974. And his 1982 club blanked North Andover, 2-0, for the Eastern Massachusetts crown (no state championships were held that year because of Proposition 2½ cuts).
There were a number of Cape Ann championships along the way since then, but no state title runs. This season turned back the clock in more ways than one. With the introduction of the less-lively BBCOR bats, small ball returned, and Carey was taken back to his early coaching days of the late ’ 60s and early ’ 70s.
“There aren’t many coaches that coached in the wooden-bat era that are still coaching now, and my style of coaching in the late ’ 60s and early ’ 70s was very consistent with this,” said Carey
“We ran, we bunted, we stole, and did all those little things,” said Carey. “This year, we’re used to grinding, scrapping, playing the defense. We know if we fall apart defensively, we don’t have the bats to bring us back.”
The Hornets dominated the Cape Ann, and after losing their first two games, ripped off a 10-game winning streak that included a 7-6 victory over conference powerhouse North Andover. Then, after a loss to Lynnfield on May 23, North Reading won eight more, including a 3-2 victory in eight innings over Lynnfield in the North final and eventually, a win over Mount Everett to claim the state title and cap off a 22-4 season.
“We’re a really young, inexperienced team, but we pulled through,” said Warnock, a junior pitcher/shortstop who collected three hits and four RBIs on Saturday.
“It’s good to know that you can count on the small ball to win games. My dad played [with coach], so did my uncle and my brother, and it’s great to know I’ll finish it off.”
Warnock came on in relief in the third inning after pitching the entire state semifinal against East Bridgewater.
The Hornets allowed just under two runs per game this season, and scored an average of five, but were determined to do whatever necessary to give Carey another title. “I told every kid that every guy had a job, whether they’re bunting, pinch-running, or going to the outfield. They knew what they had to do to win,” said Carey.
A three-sport standout at Malden in the 1970s, Furlong is a member of the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. In his second season at the helm of the softball program, he guided the Golden Tornadoes (24-2) to their first state title appearance since the 1960s. He credits Tom Thibodeau, his fellow cocaptain of the 1981 men’s basketball team at Salem State and currently off to an impressive start on the bench of the Chicago Bulls, for tips along the way in his growth as a coach.
“[Tom] used to watch film that stacked up to about three or four feet tall,” said Furlong of the former Celtics’ assistant. “You’re always learning because the game changes. Even as a coach, you’re still trying to compete for your team and the kids.”
Malden lost just once during the regular season, 7-5 to Lynn Classical, before ripping off 16 straight wins entering the state final at Worcester State against hard-thowing Kentucky recruit Shannon Smith and Milford.
“No one expected us to beat Central Catholic [North semifinals], nobody expected us to beat Acton-Boxborough [North final], and nobody expected us to beat Bridgewater-Raynham [state semifinal],” said Furlong.
“We can hang our hats on that. It’s been a wild trip; the city of Malden has been outrageous with banners and posters. It made me so proud, because I grew up in Malden. It was like when I was a kid.”
His Golden Tornadoes play well as a unit, understandable, because the majority of the players have been teammates since age 9, with the Malden Hurricanes, under Furlong’s tutelage. His daughter, Bridget, a junior second baseman this season at Malden, was on the youth team.
“We’re comfortable with each other and we have great defensive chemistry,” said senior ace Kiara Amos. “I knew that we would make it to the state tournament, even before it started. We’ve never made it this far, but I just knew by the strong season we’ve had and I’ve had, that we would be here, win or lose.”
Amos, 24-2 this season with a whopping 287 strikeouts and a 0.457 earned run average, fired two no-hitters and racked up 14 shutouts. Her .431 batting average was impressive too.
“There will never be anybody like her come through our system and our league,” said Furlong of the Providence College-bound Amos. “She’s phenomenal, and has come up in big time situations for us all year.”
This group will be tough to match.
“The best thing that’s going to happen about this whole thing is that the bus and my house is going to stop stinking,” said Furlong with chuckle. “None of the kids have washed their uniforms since we lost to Lynn Classical on April 29. But what a run though; we beat some teams that no one expected us to , and I’m just happy for the girls. They’re resilient.”