WORCESTER, Mass. -- It is a uncommon, especially in New England, to have two pitchers from the same high school being coveted by Division 1 college baseball programs.
To the naked eye you do not need to be a baseball expert to understand how talented a duo Zach Zona and Jack Riley have become.
The two St. Peter-Marian standouts are as good a one-two punch on the mound as anywhere to be found. Although the team’s current 1-4 record does not reflect it, these two aces are, without a doubt, the real deal. Enough so that both already have their futures planned beyond high school.
Zona, a senior, will play at UMass next year while Riley, only a junior, has verbally committed to UConn.
“I feel that I am very lucky and fortunate to have two guys of their caliber go out there and compete because you know most of the time the both of them are going to keep you in a baseball game,” fourth-year head coach and SPM legend Ed Riley said. “The other players on this team know it too. With Zach and Jack, whomever the opponent is, we know we are going to have a good shot at winning with either of them on the mound.”
Zona, a right-hander, is beginning his second year with the Guardians. As a freshman and sophomore, he played for archrival St. John’s of Shrewsbury before transferring.
“It really wasn’t a tough transition for me,” said Zona, also a prolific hockey player for the Guardians. “I knew a lot of the kids here prior so I was pretty comfortable coming over here when I did. I am a very out-going person so I can make friends pretty easily.”
After getting feelers from a host of college programs, Zona -- who tossed a no-hitter in a victory over Burncoat last week -- opted to stay local and play at UMass.
“It was always one of the schools I wanted to go to,” said Zona, who also plays first base and outfield. “There were some other schools looking at me but nothing really fell through. During one of my last summer ball showcase tournaments I attended, UMass came through and it has looked good from there.
"They were the most-convincing in terms of me having an opportunity to come in and pitch right away. The other schools didn’t offer me that guarantee. To me, it’s all about how hard you work and the time and effort you put into it to get to this point. The saying we have here is ‘Everyday you aren’t working someone else is.’ ”
For Riley, a lefthander who also platoons at first base and is the son of the head coach, making the early decision to attend UConn has helped alleviate some of the pressure he was under. With his decision behind him, Riley says he can now focus on improving his overall game and help SPM secure a spot in the postseason tournament.
“I am a lot more relaxed now,” the younger Riley said. “Now I can just go out and do what I have to do on the field. I started off here at SPM (since the eighth grade) with great leadership and it really has kept me very humble where I’ve never gotten a big head or anything like that. It’s a great school.”
The conventional wisdom and genes Jack has picked up from his father are certainly there too. Ed Riley is well-regarded as one of the greatest high school pitchers to ever come out of Massachusetts. During his time with the Guardians in the late 1980s, Riley posted an astonishing career record of 33-1 with a 1.57 ERA. His senior year he was named Gatorade Massachusetts High School Baseball Player of the Year; he also won a state title his junior season.
Drafted by the Red Sox in the sixth round of the 1988 MLB Draft, he spent eight seasons with the organization, reaching the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket. He later went on to have successful campaigns in the Northeast League, Atlantic League and Can-Am League. He later succeeded another SPM alum, and former Red Sox catcher, Rich Gedman as manager of the Worcester Tornadoes of the Can-Am League.
When you comprehend the kind of of success Ed Riley basked in, the general consensus by some, albeit unfairly, is to presume Jack will follow a similar path. But in the Riley household there is no such talk.
“People always try to compare me to him but I think I have better mechanics than him,” laughs Jack Riley. “To be honest I don’t listen to what anybody says because it is irrelevant. I just go out and do what I have to do to try and help my team win a game.”
In regards to coaching his son, Ed Riley is quick to say there is no preferential treatment given.
“Jack is treated just like any other player on this team," he said. “We have a mutual understanding that I am the coach and he is a player. I think he has handled things pretty well because there has been a lot of pressure in him trying to form his own identity which I will say he has done very well.
"I believe he is going to have a lot more success than I ever did. He has learned a lot more up to now than I did at his age when I was pitching. He is going to a college program where he will receive a real good clue of how to pitch. When I got drafted I had no idea and basically had to learn things on the fly."
Even though the Guardians have stumble out of the starting gate in the early going, it is ironic that they started out the same way last season before turning things and earning a postseason berth. The mutual belief around here is they will do it again.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but here,” Zona said. “No matter what our record is right now I think we’re better than most of the teams we play around here and we should be proving that soon. I know we can do it.”