Whether football, volleyball, soccer or basketball is in season, one constant sighting during the fall and winter months is young men entering East Rockaway High School toting bags full of baseball bats and gloves.
For years, the Rocks’ off-season training has epitomized the old adage that there’s no substitute for hard work. While putting in time and effort doesn’t guarantee success, no one can argue that the team is now bearing the fruits of its labor.
After last Saturday’s 6-2 victory over Pine Plains in the Class C Southeast Regional Final in upstate Saugerties, East Rockaway is heading to the state semifinals. Sophomore pitcher Chris Perri, making just the second start of his career, went the distance to earn the victory against Pine Plains. Junior Stefano Cilluffo’s long sacrifice fly broke a 2-2 tie in the top of the sixth.
East Rockaway (15-8) advances to the state final four for the first time since 1981. It will take on Ticonderoga this Friday at 2 p.m. at Conlon Field in Binghamton. The winner will face either Lansing or Avon in the state championship game on Saturday at 10 a.m. at NYSEG Stadium, home of the double-A affiliate of the Mets.
East Rockaway coach James Hickey couldn’t more pleased about the state of his program. After winning the Long Island championship last Thursday, “the guys really wanted this,” Hickey said. “You could see the look in their eyes when they arrived at the school at 5 a.m. This is something that you strive for, and it takes a lot of time and effort. I’m happy for everyone involved — the team, the school, the entire community.”
The squads battled for five innings, before the Rocks scratched and clawed to take over. Sophomore Kyle Barth led off the sixth by driving a double over the left fielder’s head. Walks to Perri and junior Dylan Henshaw loaded the bases for Cilluffo, who drove one deep to center to put the Rocks ahead 3-2.
The next three runs scored without the benefit of a batted ball. Perri scored on a wild pitch, Henshaw made a perfect read and was able to swipe home, and then sophomore catcher Matt Perri, who had drawn a walk, scored on another wild pitch to give East Rockaway a commanding 6-2 lead.
The first two runs scored by the Rocks were also unconventional. Junior Bryan Morganthaler scored from third on a short fly ball, and Cilluffo drew a bases-loaded walk.
Chris Perri gave Hickey all that he was looking for, and the Rocks made outstanding plays behind him. Perri pounded the strike zone, needing just 74 pitches to complete the first six innings. He picked off a runner to end the first inning, and Henshaw threw a runner out at the plate in the third and made a spectacular diving catch in the fourth.
The Rocks needed a dramatic comeback to win the Long Island title game against Pierson two days earlier at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue. Trailing 4-2 in the top of seventh and down to its final out, senior Jon Starkman singled to bring the team within one.
With runners on first and third, Matt Perri drove an 0-2 fastball into the gap in left center to bring home Henshaw and Starkman with the tying and go-ahead runs. Cilluffo, who went the distance, struck out the side to set off a frenzied celebration.
The victory cleared the blemish of a 10-9 loss to Wheatley in 15 innings in the small schools championship game a week earlier.
“After that game, I think everyone knew that anything could happen,” Matt Perri said. “Even though we lost, it definitely prepared us for this moment. We knew that we weren’t out of it. I wanted to get a good pitch to hit and drive the ball. This team never gives up.”