The Johnston Junior League all stars took the same route at the Eastern Regional this year as their 2011 counterparts, who lost early but came all the way back to win the title and earn a berth at the World Series.
The 2012 Johnston squad just ended up one step short.
After losing its second game at the tournament in Freehold Township, N.J., Johnston won five straight games in four days, culminating in a 19-9 win over Franklin Square, N.Y., last Thursday, which forced a winner-take-all championship. Unfortunately for Johnston, that was the end of the line. Later that same day, Franklin Square held off Johnston for a 10-8 win and a spot in the World Series.
“We were disappointed, no doubt,” said manager Joe Santilli. “Once you sit back, you realize what they accomplished. To reel off the amount of wins they did in the number of days they did it was a feat in itself. It’s a testament to the kids and the effort they put in.”
Johnston worked its way back thanks to a 10-0 win over Maine and a 7-2 victory over Massachusetts. The run continued Wednesday, as Johnston won two more games – 9-6 over Pennsylvania and 13-7 over Connecticut in the losers’ bracket final. Marc Conte, John Willette, Nick Raposo and Jordan Gillheeney led the offense against Pennsylvania, before Johnston exploded against Connecticut. Mike Caparco, Korey Fijal, Matt Kennedy, Nick Raposo, Willette and Conte all drove in runs.
The win over Connecticut put Johnston into the championship round, where it would have to beat New York twice.
Johnston took the first step with the 19-9 win. The team scored five runs in the first inning and three in the second. New York made a run of its own, but Johnston kept right on going, tallying six runs in the third inning and five more in the fifth. The game ended after the top of the fifth due to the mercy rule. Fijal had an enormous game to lead the way, hitting a home run and two doubles while driving in seven runs. Armani Henderson also homered and doubled while driving in one. Caparco, Willette, Conte, Kennedy and Raposo also drove in runs.
“We were up for that game,” Santilli said. “We had Korey Fijal on the mound so we were confident. And our hitting was tremendous. It never stopped. Up and down the lineup, no matter who we put in.”
The only negative for Johnston was that Caparco was ruled ineligible for the next game. Santilli said he shushed a rowdy group of fans in left field after catching the final out, but umpires saw it differently.
The loss of Caparco had an impact – Johnston didn’t have as much pitching as it needed. But the team still rallied and carried the momentum into the second game.
Unfortunately for Johnston, New York just had a little more.
Johnston led 1-0 and 3-1 before New York scored five runs in the third inning. After New York scored another to go up 7-3, Johnston tied the game in the bottom of the fourth.
New York then went ahead 8-7 in the fifth before Johnston tied the game again with a run in the sixth. But in the seventh, New York scored two and Johnston couldn’t put together one last comeback.
“We had guys on base but we just didn’t get it going,” Santilli said.
As the New York squad celebrated its regional title, Johnston prepared to head home. There was solace in leaving it all on the field.
“These kids battled,” Santilli said. “They always believed they could win, no matter what. I think the coaches were more worried than they were.”
Though they didn’t come back with the trophy, it was another highly successful summer. The town’s junior league team has now finished as the regional champion or runner-up for three consecutive years.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Santilli said. “All the groups I’ve had have been great, but I’ll never forget these guys. They gave me everything they had.”