LOWELL — For the fourth straight year, the Lynnfield High baseball team’s dreams of winning its first North sectional championship since 2005 came up one game short. Saturday at Stoklosa Alumni Field in Lowell, the Pioneers led 2-0 in the first inning against Bishop Fenwick, but an error-riddled third inning handed six runs to the Crusaders on a silver platter and sealed the Pioneers’ fate.
Despite the disappointment, there is no denying that when it comes to blue-chip winners, it’s hard to beat Class of 2019.
This is a class that has been to four sectional finals, by hook or by crook. The seniors have never played a preliminary-round game. They have never been seeded worse than third and have never experienced an early tournament exit. But there’s more — they’ve never finished worse than runner-up in the Cape Ann League and have two Kinney titles to boot (2017, 2019).
They compiled a record of 77-19 and a staggering win percentage of .802.
“My message to the team after (Saturday’s) game was to be proud of themselves, because I know I am,” said Pioneers coach John O’Brien. “These seniors have been terrific. They’ve have won close to 80 games. That’s a credit to them and their leadership. Every kid we had here at one point in the year did something. All these seniors have different personalities but they all blended in beautifully together and what they accomplished over their four years has been special.”
Of the seniors, only two have been there from the beginning.
Jonathan Luders and Fernando Gonzalez were only freshmen when they experienced their first sectional tournament back in 2016.
Gonzalez cracked into the rotation as a 14-year-old power lefty. He got his first varsity start against Masconomet and threw a 2-hitter with 11 strikeouts in a 2-1 loss. He got his first tournament start in the quarterfinal against Latin Academy. Despite getting pummeled in his final start of the regular season in the Brendan Grant tournament against Belmont (a 16-2 loss) the week before, Gonzalez pitched a gem of a game, striking out 10 in a complete-game 6-1 victory.
Luders’ tournament baptism was something you just can’t make up. He was brought up from the JV squad late in the season. His first tournament at-bat came in the second round against Pentucket. Trailing 5-4 in the bottom of the seventh, the Pioneers lucked out when Kyle Hawes and Nick Colucci were hit. Nick Theophiles, who had already smacked a home run, was the next scheduled batter. But in a calculated move by O’Brien, one that, no doubt, had many parents scratching their heads, O’Brien sat Theophiles in favor of Luders, an untested rookie.
“We needed to move the runners along and it was a bunting situation,” O’Brien recalled. “He was the best bunter on the bench and I didn’t care that he had never had a tournament at-bat.”
Luders never got a strike to bunt. Instead, he worked a walk. Two batters later, after a 15-minute rain delay, Mike Stellato drilled a 2-run single to plate to cap a walk-off win.
“I knew I was being sent up to bunt and had been told to only bunt strikes and pull it back if it’s a ball,” said Luders. “I just did what I was told.”
Fast forward to 2019. Luders and Gonzalez shared the end-of-year spotlight as co-Cape Ann League MVPs. During the regular season, Luders batted .492, while Gonzalez was 7-1 with two saves and 76 strikeouts. Luders is taking his talents to Division I Seton Hall, while Gonzalez will play at New Mexico Junior College.
The duo are two of nine seniors with the distinction of having played for four sectional titles. In addition, the Pioneers got contributions from seven other seniors in starters captain Jaret Simpson (catcher), Brian Cardarelli (outfield), captain Matt Fiore (infield/pitcher) and CAL All-Star Will Garofoli (outfield/pitcher) as well as Sal Marotta, Cory Castinetti and Phil Tammaro. Fiore plans to continue playing at Suffolk, while Castinetti hopes to play at UMass Boston.
“Our expectations are always high,” said O’Brien. “The kids worked hard and they are to be commended. The seniors all had different personalities, but they came together and every one of them contributed in some way this year. We will have some big holes next year losing this senior group.
“We just have to go at it next year, but I am sure that somebody will step up and take the leadership roles. They always do.”
“Next year’s team will definitely be back,” Gonzalez said. “OB has magic in his hands. I mean, I looked at this year’s team before we came together and said, ‘oh, man, I don’t know if we go very far.’ We started 5-4 which was the worst start we had in my four years, but we turned it around and ended up playing our best going into the tournament. It wasn’t the end we hoped for. We just had an off day.”