BROCKTON, Mass. – Franklin has come into the Super 8 with a chip on its shoulder. The last team selected for the elite tournament field, the Panthers are not out to prove that they belong but that they should be one of the teams to beat.
After knocking off second seed Wachusett in the opening round, Franklin squared off with perennial power St. John’s Prep, the third seed, at Brockton’s Campanelli Stadium. It came down to the last out, as these games so often do, but after Jake Noviello induced a weak grounder to second, the Panthers walked away with a 7-6 victory and a spot in the semifinal.
“We were the last team into this tournament, so we’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain,” said Franklin coach Zach Brown about playing the underdog in the Super 8.
Bryan Woelfel closed out the win against the Mountaineers just three days earlier, but he was given the ball to start against Prep and it looked as though his start was going to be a short one after the Eagles plated three runs in the third to take the lead for the first time.
“They got to me a little bit in the third, it was just a matter of getting it clicked down in the zone, slowing myself down,” Woelfel explained. “We have a hell of a field out there and we’re going to make the plays out there, so I just had to get it down in the zone, let them hit the ball.”
After that inning, Woelfel held Prep to just three hits (one an infield single) and no runs over the next four and picked up the win. It was a resilient outing for the senior, but one that his coach has come to expect from his pitcher.
“Bryan has been doing this his whole career,” said Brown. “My concern, honestly, wasn’t about him having a rough inning, it was, is he tired. Did the opportunity the other day take something out of him. He said, ‘I feel great, I’m just a little off…I need to be better and I will be,’ and he went out the next inning and he was.”
The Panthers could have been crushed by that three-run burst by Prep in the third. Franklin took the lead in its first at-bat, after back-to-back walks to Scott Elliot and Alex Haba and a bobbled grounder put runners at second and third with two outs. Cooper Ross provided the big hit with a single to right-center that scored both.
In the bottom of the first Prep got one back with an unearned run. A two-out error allowed Alex Lane to reach and Mike Yarin (4-for-5, three RBI) brought him home with a single to right. Franklin had two runners on in the second and had a runner at third with one out in the third, but failed to score in either inning.
In the bottom of the third, a walk, an infield hit, a walk, back-to-back singles (including a two-RBI hit from Lane) and a sacrifice fly by Jacob Bolger made it 4-2 and seemed to swing the momentum to the Catholic Conference side.
But, Steven Luttazi led-off the top of the fourth with a towering blast to right that cut the lead in half and instantly changed the mood on the Franklin bench.
“You never want to spit the bit with the lead and give a team like the Prep, which is absolutely loaded, an opportunity to get back in the game and take the lead,” Brown said. “Steven coming right back to put one on the board and make it a one-run game really kind of put the dugout at ease and we felt we were in striking distance.”
“That fires us up,” Woelfel added. “That got us going. I don’t think the game would’ve ended the same way if he didn’t do that.”
Woelfel followed up that homer by getting Prep in order to keep the energy high. In the fifth, Haba started a rally with a double that one-hopped the fence in left center. Jake Macchi moved him over with a sac bunt and two batters later Jack Nally made it pay off with a sac fly to left that tied the game at 4-4.
In the bottom of the seventh, Woelfel closed out his outing by getting the side in order, although the final out was a loud one, as Yarin pushed Nally all the way to the wall in right center. The Franklin centerfielder reached up with his back against the wall to pull in a long out.
Luttazi drew a one-out walk to start a rally in the eighth. J.B. Floris pinch-hit for Noviello and was hit on the arm. After an infield pop up that was dropped off the bat of Evan Wendell, both runners were able to move into scoring position with two outs. Colby Fitzgibbons drew a walk to load the bases for Elliot and he cleared them, driving a ball into center for a triple that put the Panthers back in front.
Brown said, “It was just an awesome at-bat. He stayed within himself, great approach, got a fastball that was a little up and put a great swing on it and really backspun it and it came at a huge time for us.”
Reliever Jason Ulrickson gave up a pair of hits in the eighth, but was able to escape a first-and-third, one-out jam. In the ninth, facing the top of the Prep lineup, Ulrickson got a comebacker, a single, and a fielder’s choice to get within one out of the save. Yarin made sure that there was some drama to the finish, crushing a ball to right and cutting the lead to just one.
“We have a ton of confidence in Jason Ulrickson,” Brown explained. “We also knew we had this opportunity with Noviello where we had him hot and had him ready just in case the tying run was going to come to the plate.”
Noviello, the Fairfield University-commit, had warmed up a little between innings and moved from third to the mound to close it out. He allowed a single but then got the grounder to Fitzgibbons that keeps the Panthers in the winner’s bracket.
While Franklin is relishing its underdog role in the Super 8, Brown knows that his team is capable of playing at this level.
He said, “These aren’t guys who are doing something they haven’t been doing all year, they’re just guys that are doing what they’ve been doing and continuing to do it on a bigger stage.”
Franklin (19-5) will face Central Catholic in the semifinal on Wednesday at Campanelli Stadium at 7:00.
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