It’s Freehold, NJ or bust for the Johnston Little League’s District I Champion Junior All-Stars.
If Manager Gary Rianna’s super squad, which is made up of players ages 13 and 14 wins tonight’s state championship final, then it’s off to the prestigious Eastern Regional Tournament that opens a week from tonight at Michael J. Tighe Park in the Garden State.
If the winner of last night’s elimination game should beat Johnston tonight, then the “if” game would be played tomorrow night – starting at 7 p.m. – at famed Local 57 Engineers Field inside War Memorial Park to determine Rhode Island’s representative in the Aug. 1-6 11-team Eastern Regionals.
Johnston advanced to tonight’s title contest by posting impressive back to back victories over the Cumberland, 8-3, in extra innings then sent East Greenwich into the loser’s bracket, via a 5-3 win that was highlighted by a four-run second inning rally.
In Game 1 vs. Cumberland, Johnston scored single runs in the third, fourth and fifth innings but needed a 5-run eighth inning outburst to post the hard-fought victory.
Derek Salvatore pitched six strong innings allowing only one run. Mike Laflamme had three huge hits for Johnston and Armani Arias smacked two doubles including one in the sixth inning with the bases loaded.
“That was a complete team effort .. from top to bottom,” said a jubilant Rianna. “After giving up the lead in the bottom of the seventh and the momentum swinging to Cumberland, our kids buckled toughened up then exploded for five runs in eighth and that’s all she wrote.”
Rianna, who is ably assisted by coaches Gary Salzillo and his son Zach Rianna, went on, “This was a strong win; it showed me a lot about this group of kids … anyone else would have been deflated after that seventh inning but not these goys, it fueled the fire.”
Johnston knocked out a dozen hits vs. Cumberland, which as noted, tied the score at 3-3, when Rianna sent Mike Salzillo to the mound in relief of Salvatore and the right-hander stranded a runner a third base to end the seventh inning. Once Rianna’s kids erupted for five runs in the top of the eighth frame, Salzillo shut Cumberland down in the bottom of the frame to lock up the opening round triumph.
In Game 2 vs. East Greenwich, Johnston got what Rianna called another “total team effort.”
“We got a combination of great pitching, great defense including three double plays and some timely hitting by Nunez, Salvatore and Salzillo. These boys have practiced hard, often and have been pushed. I am proud of each of them. We have a lot of work ahead of us and need to stay focused; we’ll see that happens next.”
Likewise, Rianna praised the work of Nate Lewis and Chris Civetti who split the duties at second base and also praised the defensive efforts out outfielders Antonio DeFalco, Aiden McGarry, Dylan Guernon and Nick Micheletti.
If Johnston clinches the state championship tonight, they’d head for the Eastern Regionals where they first opponent would be the Maryland State Champion. Game time would be 10 a.m. next Thursday.
State champions from all six New England states will join state titlists from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware for the 11-team double elimination event that actually begin next Wednesday with the traditional players’ banquet.
But first, as Rianna cautioned his club, “we’ve got to take care of business (tonight) Thursday night.
The recently-crowned District I champs roster includes: Jonah Pecchia, Michael LaFlamme, Davian Nunez, Armani Arias, Michael Salzillo, Aiden McGarry, Derek Salvatore, Antonio DeFalco, Chris Civetti, Dylan Guernon, Nate Lewis, Nick Micheletti, Manager Gary Rianna and coaches Zack Rianna and Gary Salzillo.