PROVIDENCE — Plenty of players with East Bay ties, seven to be exact, were among the core that propelled the LaSalle Academy baseball team this spring to its first Rhode Island Interscholastic League Division I state championship since 1984, a run that culminated in early June with a two-game sweep of top-seeded South Kingstown in the final at McCoy Stadium.
Three players from Bristol — Ryan Ramos, Justin Gervais and Sean Gill — three from East Providence — Zach Brady, Colby Paiva and Joe Rego — along with one from Warren — Matt Penkala — helped the Rams finish their march to the title with an 18-6 overall record in league games. And that list doesn’t include another “near local,” Seekonk’s Brenden Cavaco, a senior who played well defensively at first base and drove in timely runs for LaSalle during its unbeaten 6-0 march through the postseason.
Ramos, a senior outfielder and pitcher, was named The Providence Journal state player of the year, was chosen as the coaches’ Cy Young Award winner for pitchers and was named first team All-State. He’s headed to Merrimack College to continue his playing career. Gervais, a junior third baseman and the Rams’ closer, was also chosen first team All-State, was the coaches’ selection as player of the year and was also named Division I-North player of the year. Gill, a junior outfielder, drove in the game-winning runs in both of LaSalle’s victories over the Rebels in the championship series.
“Ryan was 7-0 and won big games for us all year,” LaSalle head coach Mark Mercurio, himself a resident of the Rumford section of East Providence, said of Ramos. “He hit better as a junior, but he still had a good year. He struggled a bit early, but really came on late. He’s so versatile. He’s really an infielder who I asked to play right field last year because we needed someone to play there.”
“Justin kind of came out of nowhere,” Mercurio said of Gervais. “He came here as a catcher. We had to get him in the lineup and he told us he could play third base, so we put him there and he won the position. He had a great season. He’s very talented. We’re expecting big things from him next year.”
Of Gill, Mercurio added, “Sean really stepped up for us with the two game-winning hits. He was phenomenal for us in the playoffs. After we won I told him he didn’t get the recognition he deserved throughout the year. And he said to me, ‘Coach, in 20 years they’re not going to remember who made All-State, but they will remember who got the game-winning hits.’”
Brady, a senior, was a relief pitcher for the Rams, mostly spelling starters in long relief. He pitched in both final games against S.K. Paiva, a sophomore who transferred to LaSalle from East Providence High School, was a platoon starter at second base and late-inning defensive replacement. Rego, also a sophomore, was a spot starter on the mound for the Rams during the regular season, then won two games in the playoffs including the Rams’ opener against East Providence and the first game of the final against the Rebels.
“Zach is an excellent kid, a good pitcher,” said Mercurio of Brady. “We don’t win the championship without him because he contributed all year, including in the final.”
“Colby was a surprise,” Mercurio said about Paiva. “I had never seen him play before he got here. He has great hands. He came in and was a real bonus for us with his play defensively.”
On Rego, Mercurio added, “In the final series, Joe Rego, as a sophomore, to step up and pitch the way he did was impressive. (South Kingstown’s) game plan was to jam the plate, figuring we’d pitch away and then they could extend. But we didn’t. Joe didn’t. He didn’t give into that. He did a phenomenal job all year for us and I expect him to be better next year.”
Penkala, a junior reliever, was supposed to be joined on the team by his twin brother Joe, but the latter tore his labrum in the off-season and wasn’t able to contribute to the Rams’ title run.
“Matt has a lot of talent. He just needs to realize he has tremendous stuff because he has the ability to shut people down. He needs to believe in his stuff and not try to strike everyone out,” Mercurio said of the Penkalas. “And Joe would have been our starting second baseman and leadoff hitter if he hadn’t gotten hurt. I’m expecting him to be big for us next year.”
Next year, 2018, is never far from the coach’s mind. Though he loses a couple of the locals, Mercurio said a few more East Bay players — pitcher Andrew Marzetta, middle infielder Zach White and outfielder Matt Pimentel all of East Providence and first baseman Mike Belliveau of Bristol — should be in the mix next spring.
“We have a great nucleus of East Bay kids. I don’t know why that is, but I’m glad we do,” Mercurio said.
He continued, “Looking at the kids we have coming back and the kids we’re adding, the reason why we won this year is because we had tremendous senior leadership with tremendous talent and athleticism in the other classes. Mix that together, and that’s the recipe to success. What we need is our younger guys, who are so talented and who are now juniors and seniors, to replicate that leadership. My job is to help those guys do that. And they need to take the younger guys under their wings and do the same thing that was done with them.
“Because you don’t win any other way. If you don’t have leadership, you’re doomed. And I think the guys we have coming back have that mentality. They have that taste of it, that taste of winning. They don’t just want it. They see that light at the end of the tunnel and they know what they have to do to get there.”