Joe Bongiovanni and Ryan McKeon took the court for the Johnston High School basketball team Tuesday night, just as they’ve done for every team in every sport for most of their lives.
Even in the dead of winter, they can’t help but think about spring days and the team they’ll be playing on together in 2015. In the fall, the Johnston High School seniors committed to play baseball at Division III powerhouse Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. When they finish their Panther baseball careers this spring, they’ll remain teammates again – and they couldn’t be happier.
“We’ve been playing on the same team since we were five,” McKeon said. “Every team. It’s crazy.”
There was never a plan to continue the tag-team at the college level, but when the opportunity presented itself, it felt like it was meant to be.
“His family is like a second family for me,” Bongiovanni said. “We’ve been like brothers, we’ve been with each other forever. To be going to the same college and playing together is just awesome.”
Bongiovanni has been a standout on the mound for the Panthers since his freshman year, when the lefty pitched Johnston into the Division II championship series with an impressive performance in the semifinals. He’s emerged as a solid hitter as well, but his future lies on the mound.
McKeon has been a mainstay in the middle of the Johnston infield since his sophomore year. He played second base and shortstop that season before taking full-time shortstop duties last season, when Johnston made a run to the Division I semifinals.
McKeon and Bongiovanni both earned second-team All-State honors.
“I’m very proud of them,” said Johnston baseball and basketball coach Steve DeMeo. “They’ve worked extremely hard. They play other sports, but they’re baseball players and they take pride in it. They’ll be successful because they want to be successful.”
Both had designs on playing at the next level, and the path started to open up this past summer. Bongiovanni and McKeon were playing on the Hurd Auto American Legion team. Bongiovanni had been in touch with Wheaton head coach Eric Podbelski, and when he came to a game to watch Bongiovanni pitch, McKeon caught his eye too.
“He came down and saw one of the games,” Bongiovanni said. “He had seen me pitch a couple of times. He saw Ryan playing shortstop and he liked us both.”
Bongiovanni and McKeon went up separately for visits to the Wheaton campus and loved what they saw.
“It’s small, like you’re living in a town,” McKeon said. “It’s a great campus.”
And the baseball program sold itself. Podbelski built the program from the beginning in 1998, and has molded the Lyons into one of New England’s premier D-III programs. Wheaton has won the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference 13 times in its 15 years of existence. In 2005 and 2012, the Lyons made the D-III College World Series and finished as the national runner-up both times.
“They’re a great program, always ranked in the top 20,” Bongiovanni said.
DeMeo thinks the Panther duo will fit right in. He never hesitated to throw Bongiovanni into the fire as a freshman, and the lefty has responded every step of the way.
“Joe throws strikes,” DeMeo said. “He’s just got to work on a few fundamentals which they’ll be able to help him with. It’s fine-tuning. He’ll never be rattled, no matter what the situation is. He keeps people off-balance. His curveball is outstanding.”
McKeon emerged as one of the team’s top hitters last season, and his defense at shortstop is second to none.
“Ryan is like having a coach on the field,” DeMeo said. “He thinks two steps ahead. He just understands. I don’t remember him making an error. Maybe one or two on bad fields. He’s played in big games and he always gets a big hit.”
This spring, Bongiovanni and McKeon will serve as captains as the Panthers try to continue making waves in Division I. Their run to the semifinals last year came after a 7-11 season, and Johnston would like to have postseason success without the surprise this season.
“We’re excited,” McKeon said. “We want to get to McCarthy first and then get to McCoy.”
After that, it’s the next step, one they’ve been waiting for.
“It means the world,” Bongiovanni said. “I’ve been playing baseball since I was four years old. I went to a Paw Sox game and I’ve loved it ever since then. I love everything about it and I just want to take it as far as I can.”