In the locker room of North Reading High School’s baseball team is one word written on the whiteboard: “Swag.” The term that is popularly used among teens and 20-somethings typically describes a too-cool-for-school type attitude. Someone with swag is often too big for his own britches and walks around like he knows it.
In North Reading, however, that is not the case.
Short for “swagger,” the Hornets’ swag is exemplified through a humble confidence in their ability on the field, and how they compose themselves off of it.
The defending Division 3 state champions come off a 2012 season in which they started 0-2, rattled off 11 straight wins, and went on to a 16-4 regular season record before winning six straight tournament games and defeating Mt. Everett High 8-4 in the title game to become Division 2 state champions for the fifth time in coach Frank Carey’s illustrious career.
Carey notched his 700th career win last week, and he is blessed with a team full of talent.
This year’s squad lost only two seniors and one rising senior who decided not to play, so to say the team has swag is an understatement. The team has started 4-0, outscoring opponents 36-5 to open the year, highlighted by a 20-4 victory at home against Lynn Tech Wednesday morning. In 26 games last season, the team had only eight extra-base hits: six doubles, a triple, and a home run. Through three games, team members had surpassed that total.
“Guys were amazed when I told them we were 22-4 and won the state championship with only eight extra base hits,” said Carey. “It was predicated really on the style of baseball we were playing, but this year we haven’t had an opportunity because we’ve been pounding the ball.”
Last season, starters Ryan McAuliffe and R.J. Warnock combined for a sub-1.00 ERA and averaged eight strikeouts per game. This season, the staff has a combined 0.62 ERA through the first four contests. The rock behind the staff is junior catcher Keith Linnane, who sports a two-second pop-up time, according to Carey. Pop-up time is how long it takes a catcher from the time he catches the ball to “pop up” and get the throw to second base when a runner is stealing.
Linnane’s speed from the crouch has changed the dynamics of the Hornets’ defense.
“Anyone could steal on him his freshman year,” said Carey. “Now it’s just the opposite — teams don’t run on him. I’m not making him the second coming of Johnny Bench, but he’s a two-flat thrower to second, which is incredible for high school. That limits a team’s offense.”
Linnane has been catching for McAuliffe since they were 13 years old. In their first season playing together, the two played for the AAU Scorpions Baseball Club and won a national championship for their age group in Myrtle Beach, S.C., at the Cal Ripken Jr. Invitational. Linnane has caught more than 100 McAuliffe starts since.
One new addition to the baseball team is actually an old, familiar face: 31-year-old Steve Palazzolo joined Carey’s staff as an assistant coach. Palazzolo pitched for Carey from 1998-2000 and was the winning pitcher in Carey’s 500th career victory.
The victory in Newburyport on Tuesday was Carey’s number 700.
“I don’t know why all these people are here celebrating my third career coaching victory,” joked Palazzolo.
After his career at North Reading, the 6-foot-7-inch hurler went on to pitch eight seasons in the minor leagues, bouncing around in the Giants, Mariners, and Brewers systems, eventually making it to AAA from 2008-2010 before calling it quits and joining Carey in the dugout. The opportunity was too good to resist; he wanted to be a part of the incredible job Carey does.
“He’s always taught us life skills beyond playing baseball — how to become a man as you’re heading into college and the real world,” said Palazzolo.“The winning is great, but he runs the program the same way he treats you as a person, which is preparation and hard work. The winning is a byproduct of all the hard work that he instills on you from the get-go.”
Even when the team is winning by wide margins, as it was last Wednesday, Carey never stops coaching. In the top of the fifth, with the team leading by more than 10 runs, a routine pop-up was dropped due to bad communication between a few fielders. Carey immediately popped up, livid, demanding an answer. Pacing back and forth in the dugout, players could see the angst of their coach and quickly retired the side to end the inning.
The strong character traits Carey preaches are getting their chance to shine this season. Last week, 18-year-old North Reading resident Tim Chaloux , a Pingree School student, died in a car crash on Route 128. Several members of the North Reading team knew Chaloux, including one teammate who was a close friend. The team decided on its own that they would attend the wake and funeral together, and team members are getting the letters “TC” inscribed on their hats in memory of their friend. Captains McAuliffe, Warnock, and Linnane all decided to dedicate their title-defense season to him.
“The best part is it didn’t come from me — they did it on their own,” said Carey, who believes his team can repeat with a continued commitment to hard work, and a little bit of luck.
“It won’t be a question of attitude . . . but they’re capable of [repeating]. We were good but we were also very lucky in the tournament last season. We may not be that lucky, so our first priority is to win the Cape Ann League, end up with the best record, and then from there take things one at a time.”
Eagles on 7-game winning streak
After losing their season opener by a tight 6-5 score to Xaverian, the St. John’s Prep Eagles have won seven straight games to race out to a 7-1 start after losing last season in the tournament quarterfinals, 7-4, to upset-minded Newton North following a promising 15-5 regular season. Since losing their opener, St. John’s has done everything well. During their winning streak, the Eagles scored 68 runs, but have not allowed more than two runs to any opponent, outscoring teams 68-10 during the stretch. The team also proved it can win close games with a 2-1 victory over St. John’s Shrewsbury as well. The Eagles are scheduled for a rematch at Xaverian on May 1.
Here and there
The Central Catholic softball came from behind in an April vacation special, led by a big home run by Caroline Leavitt, to defeat Cumberland High School, a Rhode Island softball powerhouse. . . . With a 12-3 win over Salem, Revere High School’s baseball team has won back-to-back games, something it did not do all last season.
Pat Bradley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.