It was late March. At 6:30 a.m., the 17-degree temperature at a practice field in Westwood made it clear winter was still upon New England. But the Belmont Hill baseball team was practicing outside, commencing its quest for a third straight ISL title.
“The bus ride over, it was freezing,” senior tricaptain Harry Roberson said. “But it was a time for us to all come together.”
A team bonded through past success is looking forward to accomplishing a specific goal come June.
“Having won two straight ISL championships, we just want to keep that rolling,” senior tricaptain Danny Kelly said. “The seniors, we’re all hungry to win one more.”
The Hillies (18-0) embody what the players all call “grit,” a spirit that starts with coach Mike Grant, a disciple of legendary Northeastern University baseball coach Neil McPhee.
“We’re a ‘compete and grind’ sort of team,” Grant said. “We have simple rules. It’s work hard, support each other, and work like hell. They show up to work each day and it’s a pleasure to coach.”
Belmont Hill graduated the top pitcher in the ISL last year in Keelan Smithers, who’s now hurling at Princeton, but the team returned eight lineup regulars. The third captain, senior Nolan Brennan, is a Bucknell commit who leads the pitching staff.
“The grind of going through practice every day, you know you’re going through what the guy next to you is,” Roberson said. “And we all just want to fight for that guy.”
Brennan’s grind has been tougher than most. A linebacker for Belmont Hill, the senior tore his meniscus midway through last season. He played through the campaign, but with reduced strength in his leg, he’s been unable to run and hit this spring. The injury has decreased his velocity, but he’s still been able to spot the ball at a high rate.
“It does stink, I’m pitching through pain all year,” Brennan said. “But it’s definitely something I want to do: contribute to the team in any way possible. That’s all I can do right now, so I have to go out there and do it.”
Brennan leads the team in innings pitched at 35⅔ and strikeouts at 25, while only surrendering six earned runs. Behind Brennan in the rotation is sophomore A.J. DiFillipo, who boasts a 1.17 ERA and nearly 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s also batting .351 with two home runs and 15 RBIs.
Ben Wanger, the team’s cleanup hitter, is batting .420 with 16 RBIs. He’s also the team’s top reliever, owning a 0.96 ERA, with 20 strikeouts in 14⅔ innings.
“Some teams have one really great hitter batting 3 or 4 [in the order],” Grant said. “For us, it’s a mass as opposed to one individual. We’re not a superstar team by any means, but our kids work hard.”
The Hillies don’t blow their opposition away every outing. Sure, they’ve had their fair share of easy wins, but they’ve also needed some late-game heroics to preserve their unbeaten season.
Charlie McConnell’s walkoff single gave Belmont Hill a 7-6 win over Worcester Academy in the season opener April 4. In a 6-5 win over St. Sebastian’s April 24, senior Sam Stack had walkoff single. Last week, Jack Wilhoite hit a two-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning off Groton’s top pitcher, Johnny Lamont, to give the Hillies a 3-1 win.
Grant and his players feel they can overcome any adversity they may face in the postseason.
“Coach Grant always says, ‘Nobody’s ever good enough to take a day off,’ and we really believe we get better each and every day,” Kelly said.
After averaging 15 wins per year for the past 13 seasons, Abington coach Steve Perakslis earned his 200th career win last Thursday, a 10-4 decision over Norwell. The coach has accrued five South Shore League championships and boasts a record of 200-92. Perakslis, who’s lauded for his constant presence around the school and in the Abington community, took over the program in 2002 and has had the team in the state tournament in all but one year during his tenure. In 2009, his team capped off a 24-2 season with the school’s first state championship . . . Newton North coach Joe Siciliano won his 300th game on May 9, 7-3 over Walpole . . . Millbury coach Ron Silvestri won his 500th game last Monday, a 3-1 triumph over Grafton.
Players of the Week
Jason Johndrow, Silver Lake — In a 3-2 win over Whitman-Hanson that clinched the Patriot League Keenan Division title, Johndrow went the distance and struck out nine.
Jake D’Ercole, Bishop Feehan — The Shamrocks clinched the Eastern Athletic Conference title with a 10-5 win over Coyle & Cassidy, and D’Ercole had four hits, including a double and triple, while scoring three runs.
Ted Rodliff, Newton North — The senior improved to 5-0, hurling a four-hitter while striking out 11 in a 2-1 win over BC High.
Games of the Week
Braintree at BC High, Monday, 4 — The first of two big games in Dorchester for the Eagles. BC High has a three-game losing streak and is facing a Braintree team that is making a push for the Super 8.
St. John’s Prep at BC High, Tuesday, 4 — It only gets tougher for BC High with top-ranked Prep coming to town.
BB&N at Belmont Hill, Friday, 4 — ISL leader Belmont Hill puts it undefeated record on the line against the second-place Knights.
Lincoln-Sudbury at Acton-Boxboro, Wednesday, 4 — The last time the top two teams in the Dual County League met, the Colonials handed L-S a 1-0 loss.