Kenny Tocci has never been afraid to ruffle feathers.
When he was coach of the South Shore Seadogs Elite AAU 16-and-under team, he brought along a young catcher, Sam Ballerini , to a tournament.
As a 14-year-old freshman at Silver Lake Regional, Ballerini started for Tocci at second base as he became acclimated to the varsity game.
But his true position was behind the plate, and his strength and baseball acumen was enough to convince Tocci that summer that Ballerini deserved a shot against elite talent.
“I put him out there, and he threw out runners who were 16 years old at a high level,” said Tocci, in his sixth season as coach of the Lakers.
“He proved to me that I could do what I was thinking of doing, which was moving my catcher ( Matt Connolly ) to shortstop.”
That transition happened at the start of last year, and Ballerini has never looked back.
A Patriot League all-star as a sophomore, and now a junior captain, the 5-foot-10 Ballerini has developed into the best catcher in the league, and is instrumental in directing the Lakers (15-5, 10-3) to a share of their first league crown in 51 years.
He loves the position. “I get to touch the ball every play,” said Ballerini. “I’m always thinking, always getting signs from the coach. It just feels good to be a leader.”
He has thrown out 25 percent of opposing runners attempting to steal, and while his arm helped earn him the starting job, Ballerini has become known for his ability to stop any ball thrown his way.
“He stops [errant pitches] 10 out of 10 times,” said senior pitcher Tucker Bouchard . “He blocks everything. If anything ever gets behind him, he pops right up and gets the ball right back in.”
Ballerini’s brother, Kevin, a senior pitcher, added “I think a lot of times we just assume he’s going to stop it, even though it’s a really hard stop.”
For all the younger Ballerini does behind the plate, he also contributes significant at-bats from the second spot in the order, compiling a .338 batting average with 10 runs batted in and 10 stolen bases in 20 games.
His consistent work ethic and endearing leadership have laid a strong foundation, earning him the role as a cocaptain, voted by his peers.
Tocci has no doubt that Ballerini can play at the Division 1 level in college, but first, he’s going to enjoy coaching him one more year.
“Sam gives me an advantage over every team that we will play because he is the best catcher I have seen,” said Tocci. “I know we will have an advantage in any game.”
Tocci is not the only coach in the region to have a talented anchor behind the plate. Other standouts are:
Mark Saulnier: Norwood
The Division 2 state wrestling champion at 195 pounds, Norwood High junior Mark Saulnier brings intensity to every battle, whether he is on the mat or the diamond.
“It's the stuff you don't see,” said Norwood coach Kevin Igoe of what sets Saulnier apart for his 15-5 Mustangs.
“In a 4-3 game against Xaverian, they had the bases loaded, one out. Our pitcher throws two curves in the dirt, and he just eats them.
“No one in the stands understands how important that is. He’s rock steady.”
While hardly any pitches get by him, the same can be said for runners on the base path. Saulnier converted nearly 48-percent of stolen base attempts into outs during the regular season.
“He’s got the strongest wrists of any kid I’ve ever coached,” said Igoe. “He flicks his wrist, and the ball is down to second base.”
Saulnier also has a great knack for getting on base, batting .360 with 22 runs and 10 stolen bases through 20 games.
“We take for granted sometimes how important he is to our team,” said Igoe.
Matt Harding: Oliver Ames
When Matt Harding was a sophomore, he didn’t have a home on the diamond.
Oliver Ames was relying on David Peretti , now playing at Union, at catcher. So Harding got into the lineup as designated hitter. In his first year of varsity ball, he knocked in 30 runs.
As a senior captain, the Hockomock League all-star has caught every inning for the Tigers (12-8).
With senior ace Ryan O’Shea , a Central Michigan recruit, sidelined with a lingering shoulder injury, Harding has been instrumental in developing two freshmen starters on the mound, including Brendan Walsh , who pitched a no-hitter on April 25 against Canton.
Harding calls a strong game, and keeps runners honest. He threw out 8 of 12 would-be base stealers in the final few games of the regular season.
Hitting in the cleanup spot, Harding carries a .400 average (fourth-best in the Hock), and his 18 RBIs raised his career total to nearly 70. He also has received the Muscato Award, presented to the most valuable athlete at Oliver Ames.
“People just don’t realize how hard it is physically to catch all those innings,” said Oliver Ames coach Leo Duggan . “If we’re going to do anything in the tourney, it’s up to Matt.”
Tyler Taccini: West Bridgewater
After West Bridgewater fell in the Division 4 South final, 2-0, to eventual state champion Cohasset last June, coach Cully Ohlson was forced to say goodbye to nine seniors, including DJ Jamieson , a four-year starter behind the plate. Jamieson’s backup also graduated, leaving a void.
Ohlson turned to Tyler Taccini , a sophomore who spent his freshman season as the junior varsity catcher.
In his first varsity game against Bishop Connolly, Taccini made a critical throwing error with two outs. The Wildcats lost, 5-4.
But something clicked. And from that point forward, Taccini has matured into one of the more dependable catchers in the area, and the backbone behind the Wildcats’ 16-4 season.
“He’s a mentally tough kid, and I didn’t know he was that kind of kid,” said Ohlson. “He’s very smart academically and he’s easy going, but I didn’t know he had that desire. All of a sudden, he was determined he wouldn’t make that mistake again.”
At the plate, Taccini was moved up from the ninth spot to fifth in the order, and carries a .370 average.
As a catcher, his technique is quickly improving. His ability to deliver the ball just a second earlier on stolen base attempts is his last big hurdle, but Ohlson knows that arm strength will come as his body matures.
“He said he’s really looking forward to next year already,” said Ohlson.
Here and there
On Wednesday, senior Rhett Wiseman of Mansfield was selected as the 2011-2012 Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year for the state of Massachusetts.
The Buckingham Browne & Nichols center fielder helped the Knights to a 16-5 regular season record, compiling a .444 batting average with eight home runs, 24 runs batted in, and 26 runs scored.
Considered one of the nation’s top high school prospects, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Wiseman has committed to Vanderbilt University. But he also will undoubtedly appear this week in Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft. . . . In his second-to-last varsity game, Randolph senior Jason Gonzalez stole career base No. 100 in a 14-5 loss to Advanced Math and Science. Gonzalez finished his career with 104 stolen bases.
Andrew MacDougall can be reached at email@example.com.