Boston High School: Dan Mantoni

D3 Baseball State Final: Middleborough 4, Hopedale 3

June, 15, 2013

LOWELL, Mass. -- This postseason has played out like a movie for Middleborough, with its share of drama, adversity, and triumph making it a story fit for the big screen.

So it was only fitting that the Division 3 state baseball final ended with a walk-off 4-3 victory.

Going into the seventh and final inning, it was tied 2-2. Hopedale’s Kevin Lynch singled to begin the inning and scored three batters later when Cole DeDonato grounded out to second.

[+] EnlargeKevin Huscher
Brendan Hall/ Kevin Huscher smacked a two-run single with two outs in the bottom of the seventh for the walk-off win, giving Middleborough its first state title since 1997.
Hopedale (21-4) took that momentum into the bottom of the inning, bringing in left-hander Ian Strom to close out the game. He walked two of the first three batters he faced, striking out the other. That brought up the top of the Middleborough (21-5) order, but Strom dispatched Paul Sances with a three-pitch strikeout for the second out of the inning.

Neil Perry walked, loading the bases for Kevin Huscher. The senior shortstop had one hit in three at-bats until that point. He sent a single back up the middle, scoring both runners in scoring position and putting an exclamation point on the team’s storybook season.

“To be honest, I was surprised to see (Strom) come out on the mound because he just pitched two days ago,” said Middleborough coach Bill Lawrence. “That’s what I talked to all of our batters about. We watched him warm up and he couldn’t throw a strike during his warm-ups.”

It is the team’s first state baseball championship since 1997.

“We won the same way in ’97, with two outs,” said Lawrence. “These kids have been resilient the whole year, I just didn’t want to come this far and have to turn around and go home as the runner-up. They don’t deserve that.”

Middleborough got on the board first in the bottom of the second when Cody Braga’s sacrifice fly plated Andrew Card. It tied the game in the sixth when Card’s triple off the right field wall scored Huscher.

Hopedale’s Dan Mantoni was effective on the mound, going six innings, allowing five hits striking out seven batters and walking four.

Flashing some leather: While Middleborough leadoff hitter Paul Sances went 0-for-4 at the plate, he helped his team in the field with two highlight catches in left field. Cole DeDonato singled with one out in the fifth, then stole second to get in scoring position. Strom, the next batter up, hit a low line drive to left that forced Sances to run in to play it. Knowing could not make the play on his feet, he dove, making the catch and saving a potential run from scoring.

The next batter, Dan Mantoni, hit a 3-0 pitch deep into the gap in left-center field. Sances sprinted to his left, again hoping to save a potential run from scoring. For the second time in the inning, he went horizontal and made the catch, this time ending the inning and any threat Hopedale had of scoring.

“This park is a little deceiving for us, we couldn’t figure out if he was playing too shallow, too left or right because of the angle we were at,” said Lawrence. “We just kept watching their outfielder and watch him when the ball was hit. So he had it hard, just on that aspect. Those two diving catches, that saved us.”

Close call: For a few seconds, Huscher was almost the goat of the game rather than the hero. He stepped up to the plate and went after the first pitch he saw, sending it deep down the right field line. As the ball hung in the air, he jogged down the first base line, willing the ball to drop or keep heading out of play.

With two outs and the bases loaded, no player wants to be the one to make the final out, especially in the state championship game. It appeared the right fielder had ran it down, until the ball dropped out of reach.

“I was thinking I hope that thing gets down because that would be a terrible way to lose with bases loaded,” he said. “I just wanted to do that one for my team.”

Huscher came back after the long strike and knocked the game winning single up the middle.

“On the first pitch, he threw me a fastball and I took kind of a crazy swing at it and luckily it hit the ground,” he said. “Second pitch I was thinking he was going to come back with something soft because I put a pretty good solid swing on it. He ended up coming back with a fastball and it’s pretty straight, not a lot of movement, and I just put it up the middle.

Honoring Braga: This Middleborough season was dedicated to former teacher and soccer coach Jim Braga, who was tragically killed in a car crash last March. In remembrance, the team sported patches on its jerseys with the initials JB.

His grandson, Cody, plays on the Middleborough baseball team and batted eighth in Saturday’s state championship game. As the game came down to the wire and the last inning unfolded, the team and its coaching staff looked for a little help from above when it needed it the most.

“I just had a feeling,” said Lawrence. “I just kept (looking up at the sky). I said, ‘C’mon Jimmy, get us through here,’ and sure enough it did.”

As the ball fell in foul territory just before the game-winning hit, one was left wondering if there was something special going on at Lalacheur.

“We’ve been pretty much unbeatable lately,” said Huscher. “I’d say definitely we had a few angels with us. Mr. Braga was an awesome guy and I think he would be very proud of the team and the things we accomplished.”

Small's discipline instills Hopedale's Mantoni bros.

June, 15, 2013
Joe Mantoni sat anxiously at his house in Northbridge last weekend, watching the stream of the Major League Baseball Draft on MLB Network. After 17 rounds in the books, he got bored.

Sure enough, soon after he left to go play pick-up basketball with some of his friends, he got a call from his father the Cincinnati Reds had drafted the former Hopedale star in the 18th round of the draft, with the 555th pick.

Mantoni, who served as Merrimack College’s designated hitter and closing pitcher this past season, led the team with 36 RBI; on the mound, he had a 1.61 ERA in 28 innings pitched.

“It’s a surreal moment honestly,” Mantoni said. “I had a feeling I’d get picked, I just didn’t know when. It happened earlier than I thought.”

The next day, Mantoni looked on at Tivnan Field as his younger brother Dan, a senior, pitched a complete game three-hitter to lead the Blue Raiders to the Central Mass. Division 3 championship. Dan took care of business in the batter’s box too, hitting a two-run double to break a 1-1 tie in the sixth inning. The win over Oxford came about a year after Hopedale lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to the Pirates in last year’s district final.

“We had a good sixth inning, Danny had a key hit,” Hopedale head coach Joe Small said. “My guys wanted to play them, we saw brackets and they were on the other side, they said we’d like to play [Oxford] if we we’re lucky enough to get there. Another good game, luckily.”

After the game, the coach quickly refocused his team on the goals that they had set.

“He was excited, he said he couldn’t be prouder of us in the way we battled. He also said don’t be satisfied, we’re still playing...typical Coach Small,” Mantoni laughed. “He was on to the next game already.”

Days later, Blue Raiders’ co-ace Ian Strom, a potential all-state candidate who is headed to play baseball at Division 1 UMass-Lowell, pitched a complete game against Western Mass. champ Frontier Regional, to give Hopedale a berth in the state championship game.

To add a little more sentiment to the equation, this season will be Small’s last year at the helm for the Blue Raiders. Small, a 1970 graduate of Hopedale High School, has been Hopedale’s coach for 24 years. Current and former players, including the Mantoni’s, say Small’s fire and energy on the bench has taught them motivation and discipline.

“So many different ways he’s helped us: him pushing us harder -- he’s as much a competitor as anybody on the team. He wanted to win that game just as much as anybody. It showed. The guy really wants to win, it did add some extra motivation,” says Dan.

Small praised Joe after getting taken by the Reds, adamant that Mantoni’s weight-room dedication was the reason for his impressive improvement at Merrimack.

“His body has changed...he got on a weight program--he’s a hard worker,” Small said. “He’s not going to wanna’ talk about it, though.”

Dan seconded his coach’s comment: “Joe’s too humble to really toot the horn about it.”

Joe says his dedication to working out explains why his fastball has jumped into the low-90’s.

“[Lifting] was a huge part, over my four years at college I got stronger every year, I gained good weight every year,” Joe said. “My fastball velocity kept rising each year. I knew that was a huge part of my reason for getting picked: I spent a lot of time in the weight room.”

Joe left on Monday, making his way to Arizona for training before he gets called to the Reds’ rookie ball affiliate in Billings, Mont. some time this summer. In reflecting on his brother’s journey from a Division 3 high school, to Division 2 college, to Cincinnati Reds draft pick—Dan says he hopes young local players take not of Joe’s hard work and dedication.

“He’s always been someone I look up to, admired, respected because of the way he plays the game. He works harder than anybody I’ve ever met. The work paid off for him and I’m happy, I try to follow his footsteps. It lets me push a little bit harder, every step of the game, that I can be like him someday. Him being there, he reached a dream that every kid playing Little League has.”

Dan continued, “I hope people, those who have seen him play and younger kids, can model his work ethic. You don’t see it happen that much...people can see this kid from Hopedale who went to a D2 college and got drafted. He got the opportunity, and took advantage of it. I look at him as a role model, and I hope other kids around here do too.”

Dan -- who will play college baseball next year at UMass-Boston and says he will play “wherever the coach wants me to be," -- will have the opportunity tomorrow to play for the Division 3 state championship against Middleborough. The win would mark the first of Small’s career as coach at the annual D3 power. Putting the 328 career wins and countless district championships aside, the veteran coach says there are but a few things he hopes that current and former players take from his tenure as coach.

“The key to this whole coaching stuff is discipline," he said. "I let them play ball, kids nowadays they don’t play enough ball -- it’s all drills. I learned in practice, sometimes you do some drills and then we play—we scrimmage a lot. If there’s one thing I want them to learn from me, is I don’t want them to think losing is fun. It’s not okay.”