Last season was a culmination for the Johnston baseball team, a happy ending for a big and talented senior class. The Panthers had come up one step short of McCoy Stadium and the Division II finals for three years running, but they got there last year and made themselves at home, winning the school’s first baseball championship since 1995.
With five starters gone from that team, including three middle-of-the-order bats, it’s a new beginning for the Panthers this year.
But they’d like to see the same ending.
“They expect nothing but getting back there,” said head coach Steve DeMeo. “I try to temper that a little bit because we’re young and it doesn’t always go like that. But as long as the work coincides with the expectations, it’s fine to have those expectations. It’s easy to sit in the dugout and say, ‘We’re going to be at McCoy.’ You have to set the goals and then work your tail off to get there.”
So far, so good for the Panthers. They’re as young as they’ve been in a while, with four sophomores and a freshman in the starting lineup, but they have some veterans to lean on, and there’s no shortage of talent. They won their season opener 9-4 over Scituate on Monday.
Essentially, there’s no reason the Panthers can’t contend, even if their team doesn’t look like it did last year.
“If we can catch the ball and play defense, I think we could have a very good season,” DeMeo said. “It’s difficult right now because we don’t know what the competition is like, but I think we have the potential to be there.”
The biggest reason for optimism is the pitching staff, which didn’t take nearly as much of a hit as the offense when it came to graduation losses. Senior Gian Bianchi returns after a strong junior season that finished with MVP honors in the championship series. Sophomore Joe Bongiovanni is back after an impressive freshman season, while junior Steve Perfetto returns after getting a lot of innings last year. Sophomore James Picchi, who couldn’t pitch last year because of an injury, is also in the fold.
“Gian, Joe, Steve – those guys have been there before,” DeMeo said. “They might have had butterflies at McCoy last year, but they didn’t show it. They’re not going to get rattled.”
Bianchi, a right-hander, should be one of the top pitchers in the division. In the championship-clinching win last year, he tossed a complete-game three-hitter with seven strikeouts.
“Gian worked hard in the off-season,” DeMeo said. “He went to pitching classes and kept his arm strong. He’s going to do a great job.”
Bongiovanni should also be primed for a big season. As a freshman, he had his coming-out party in the late innings of a playoff game against Woonsocket.
“If Gian is our ace, Joe is our 1-A,” DeMeo said. “He came on in relief the other day, threw two pitches and got a double play, then he struck out the side the next inning.”
Perfetto adds to Johnston’s depth after seeing a lot of innings last year, and Picchi is also ready to contribute.
“Our pitching is going to be pretty strong,” DeMeo said.
As for the offense, the Panthers may have some catching up to do. Gone to graduation are Ryan Geraghty, Greg Doutre and Nick Loffredo. That trio batted in the third, fourth and fifth spots in the order last year and provided a lot of Johnston’s pop.
Without them, the Panthers won’t be as powerful, and new bat regulations may also tone down the offense.
“With the new bats, it’s going to be a little different,” DeMeo said. “Monday, we probably only had three real good balls off the bat. Those home runs we got used to seeing last year aren’t going to be as frequent.”
Still, while their lineup may not be as intimidating as last year’s, the Panthers figure to hold their own.
Senior Chris Pistacchio is back in center field and he’ll bat leadoff after a strong showing in that spot as a junior. Bianchi, who will play shortstop when he doesn’t pitch, is back in the second spot.
Sophomore Alex Tenerella, who’s playing right field, is jumping right in to the third spot, while junior left fielder Mike Pennacchia, a standout last year, will bat cleanup.
Perfetto will play third and bat fifth, and Bongiovanni is slated to bat sixth. He’ll play first base when he’s not pitching.
In the seventh spot, the Panthers will go with one of their two catchers – junior Matt Chapman or freshman Steve Pennacchia. Sophomore Ryan McKeon is slated for second base and the eighth spot in the order, with Picchi playing shortstop and batting ninth.
The Panthers also have several other players who will contribute. Senior Ed Pannone is back after a knee injury sidelined him last year, and he’ll see some time at second base. Senior Joe Pecchia will play first base when Bongiovanni pitches. Senior Rubens Grullon and junior Joe Santilli are among the other players in the mix.
It all adds up to a young team, one that looks a lot different than the squad that celebrated at McCoy last year. But as these Panthers make their own identity, they fully plan on being successful again.
“It’s a different energy because they’re young,” DeMeo said. “Last year, we had the veterans. They knew they were good but they also knew what it was going to take to win. With the young guys, we’ll see. They’re working hard. We’ll see how they do later on as the season progresses and the games get more important.”
Johnston returns to action Thursday for a 4:15 p.m. game at Central Falls. The Panthers will also host an Injury Fund event Saturday, which begins at 12 p.m. Johnston will play Lincoln and Cumberland will play Woonsocket.