PAWTUCKET — Tolman High skipper Theo Murray had just sat at a table under the right-field barbeque tent at McCoy Stadium on Saturday, and – with Tigers' Athletic Director John Scanlon and Pawtucket Red Sox' President Mike Tamburro stationed at both sides – he continued chomping on the food the home team's cooks had prepared.
“Finally, I can take a deep breath and enjoy,” Murray grinned after his squad had collected a 5-3 non-league triumph over his very special guests, the Nighthawks of Newtown, Conn. High School. “In my wildest dreams, this couldn't have gone any better. There wasn't one hiccup in this whole plan.”
It was Murray's volition, about a month after Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School had been bombarded by gunfire via one warped gunman's bullets, to invite head coach Matt Memoli and his Nighthawks to play inside the park.
When Murray met with Tamburro about the idea, the latter greeted it with joy and enthusiasm, a date was finalized and the notion came to fruition. But that wasn't all; after the tilt, the two clubs would sit under the tent and eat a barbeque meal planned just for them.
Murray had learned during the game that another dream had been realized. Not only did 918 fans show up to witness the event, but $8,500 had been raised for the Sandy Hook School Workers Assistance Fund.
“The Pawtucket community really came out and showed their support,” Murray explained. “From the local Little Leagues to the School Superintendent (Deborah Cylke) to the mayor (Don Grebien), everyone did so much, and I'm very grateful to them all.
“Matt (Memoli) and I said a long time ago that the final score would mean little to what we were trying to accomplish, and that was to lend our support to the Newtown community (for what it endured last Dec. 14),” he added. “We wanted both teams to have this opportunity, and it was a fantastic success.
“You know what? After the game, every player and coach from Newtown shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said they couldn't thank me enough for this, and that spoke volumes. I'll tell you what: I got a little emotional when the National Anthem was sung. It was incredible, and I felt the same with the way the crowd made them feel, standing and applauding every name of the team. It made me proud to help them feel welcome.”
Stated Memoli with a smile: “I just wish we would've performed a little better on a huge stage like this. What we went through is on everyone's mind, but this helps, playing baseball, doing something we all love.”
Two Tolman mainstays, seniors Chris Baldwin and Jason Maynard, had believed prior to the contest that Newtown – which last spring snatched the Southwestern Conference championship but later lost in the state playoffs' second round – would be loaded with talent. They worried about being pummeled.
“It was a shock to me (to win) because they're a great ballclub; I had heard they were in Connecticut's Final Four last year,” Baldwin offered. “But, no matter what, we just wanted to play baseball and enjoy it.”
In the end, they did, and then some.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” Baldwin stated. “This was for those who maybe couldn't give a few months ago; this was a great opportunity to give back to Newtown now. But this was unusual for us, too. We play some home (league) games here, but never with the scoreboard on, and with announcer up in the booth.
“To hear your name called, and to see it up on the scoreboard, and the crowd going crazy, the atmosphere it created was great,” he added. “It felt like a real PawSox game.”
It wasn't, but that didn't matter to either side.
The Nighthawks, who entered the contest with a 3-3 SWC mark, overcame definitive pre-game jitters with style. Senior Justin Devellis led off with a rope single to center, then stole second off of senior righty Joey Fernandes.
Classmate Stephen Conway flew out to second, but sophomore Julian Dunn's hit moved Devellis to third, and he scored on senior Dean Demers' sacrifice fly to center.
Mike Koch retired the Tigers in order in the first, and Newtown appeared ready to cushion its lead in the second. Senior Pat Mullins reached on shortstop Corey Hughes' error, and classmate Reid Schmidt's hit to left helped him to second.
Junior Austin Raftery then laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance them, but Fernandes got senior Virgil Procaccini to ground to short and Devellis to do the same to third.
The Tigers didn't need long to claw back. With one down, Fernandes drew a walk off righty reliever Pat Rowley, and senior Nick Kempf poked a soft single to center before Hughes walked to juice the bags.
With junior Anthony DiBiasio at the plate, Rowley's wild pitch plated Fernandes, and – with the bases still loaded – DiBiasio whiffed. Sophomore Steven Otis, however, ripped a hit to left to plate Kempf and Hughes, and Otis later hustled in on Maynard's double to the left-center hole.
That gave Tolman a 4-1 advantage.
Demers' two-out double to right-center went for naught in the third, but Murray's bunch increased its lead to 5-1 in the back half; senior Carlos Sanabria opened the frame with a single to the right-center gap, and he raced to third on sophomore Nate Gagnon's hit up the middle. Reliever Colton Sposta walked Fernandes to load them again, and Memoli opted to replace him with southpaw Troy Larsen.
The reliever immediately hit Kempf to score Sanabria, but he got Hughes to bounce into a fielder's choice and fanned pinch-hitter Richie Marshall to end the mini-surge.
In the top of the fourth, the Nighthawks threatened after Fernandes' replacement, the lefty DiBiasio hit Schmidt with a one-out pitch, then walked Raftery. Procaccini's fielder's choice resulted in Schmidt moving to third, but it became a double play when umpires ruled Raftery had interfered with shortstop Hughes' transfer.
In his first three innings of work, Fernandes scattered four hits (without a walk) and struck out one, while DiBiasio didn't allow a hit but hit a batter and walked a pair while whiffing one.
Their replacement, Kempf, found it a tough haul in the seventh, though.
Newtown's pinch-hitter Alex Lapinski laced a double to the right-center gap, and hustled to third when Koch lofted a bloop hit to left. Another pinch-hitter, Garrison Buzzano, then drilled a liner at Kempf, who impressively snared it, but – in an effort to get Lapinski at third – he airmailed his delivery to Sanabria, and Lapinski scored with ease.
So did Koch after the hurler threw a wild offering to new batterymate Ricky Bourdeau.
Still alive, Conway took first on an error, but Julian Dunn flied out to center and, following a walk to senior Brandon Marks, junior Matt Hoyt fouled out to first for the final out.
All told, Demers finished 1-for-2 with an RBI, and Devellis 1-for-3 with a run scored and a stolen bag. For the Tigers (4-1 overall), Otis went 1-for-2 with a pair of RBI and a run; Fernandes earned three walks and scored once; and Maynard 1-for-3 with a two-bagger and RBI.
“They had one big inning, and, as a program this season, we've been searching for a guy to be our stopper, but we haven't found him yet,” Memoli said. “We need a guy to step up and get the job done. Still, it was a good time. Non-league games count on our record (for a post-season appearance), but the result isn't really important here. The meaning of this game is so much more than a win or loss.”
For Maynard, the victory was great, but he reiterated Memoli's thought.
“This was definitely the most fun game I've ever played in,” he noted. “I've never seen so many people at one of our games before, and I don't think I'll ever have this experience again, seeing your name and face up on the board. This is cool, and it just makes me smile.
“We went to Cooperstown last year, and we played Wheeler School (or Providence) at Doubleday Field,” he continued. “We won, and the history behind that park is incredible; it goes way back, and the Hall of Fame, that was great, too. Still, this has to be better than that.
“We didn't have a lot of our fans there, but the turnout here was unbelievable, and – with the game meaning so much, not for the final score but who we were playing against – that's what made this so special.”
Newtown first-base coach Joe Lizza wasn't about to argue that point.
“This is amazing, it really is,” he chuckled. “This is a great opportunity for our kids to play in a beautiful park. We wanted to get everybody up here to experience what it's like to play here. Some of these kids will never get this kind of chance again; that's why we tried to get all of our players in there.
“Even though it counts on our record, this was much more about the experience for the kids,” he added. “It would've been a disservice not to play everyone. We wanted to use seven pitchers, and we only got five in, but they had the opportunity to take the hill here. Now that's something they'll remember forever.”