WORCESTER — The tears of joy the Pope John Paul II players shed after winning the Division 4 state baseball title weren’t your average championship tears. They meant so much more.
Last November, Christian Hegarty, a sophomore starter for the Lions last season, was diagnosed with bone cancer. The news was devastating, but the players knew what they wanted to do.
They wanted to win it all for their teammate. And on Saturday afternoon at Holy Cross, that’s what they did.
Senior Austin Houlihan struck out seven in a one-hitter to lift the Lions (27-1) to a 3-0 win over Hopkins Academy (14-10) for their first state title. Hegarty’s No. 9 jersey was front and center during the trophy presentation.
“Our guys, back in November, committed themselves that we’re playing for him. That jersey has come with us all year long,” said Lions coach Mark Santos, his voice moved with emotion. “He’s made a few games and the ones he did we won them all. He couldn’t be here today, because he has chemo treatment. But I talked to him this morning and he said, ‘Coach, go bring it home. Get me a ring.’
“The first thing they said to me [after the game] was this was for Heggs. He’s not here physically, but he’ll always be with us.”
After escaping a bases-loaded jam in the first inning, Houlihan (four walks) retired 19 of the final 21 batters, and at one point set down 12 straight.
“I didn’t really have my best stuff [early in the game],” said Houlihan. “But I finally settled down and figured out that my defense was going to make all the plays.
“This is the greatest feeling I think that any 18-year-old kid can have. Just sharing it with my brothers, looking up in the stands at my family. It’s the best feeling that I’ve ever had.”
The Lions gave Houlihan a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first. Collin Russell ripped a two-out, two-strike single to center to score Matt Santos, who had doubled.
“It was nice to get on top early,” said Mark Santos. “We’ve been fighting from behind all tournament. It was good to get up and play with a lead.”
The Lions made it 2-0 in the third. With the bases loaded and one out, Kevin Marsh lined out to shortstop Evan Delaney. Delaney attempted to double up Ben Gibson at second, but threw the ball into right field, allowing Matt Santos to score from third.
Mike Young’s single in the fifth scored Gibson to extend the lead to 3-0.
The Lions, who lost in the title game last season, didn’t have the easiest trip to the top, but in the end that’s what made it all the more special.
“I knew we had a really good team and I knew we’d be in the hunt,” said Mark Santos. “But really for us, it’s been the journey. Having a teammate stricken with cancer, that just puts everything in perspective. I’m just proud of how we got here.”