The 2021 Rhode Island Interscholastic League Division 1 Varsity Baseball State Tournament kicked off its Semifinals yesterday. At Pilgrim High School, Pilgrim took on North Kingstown High School. And at Coventry High School, Coventry hosted Central High School. Both series are a best of 3 format, with the teams alternating home fields for Games 1 and 2, and possibly Game 3. Four incredible schools, all with proud traditions of academic and athletic achievements here in Rhode Island for decades, competing a very high level this baseball season. It is going to be an incredible semifinals series for all 4 teams involved.
The Coventry game vs Central was scheduled to start at 2pm so I took the drive out to Coventry High School. From my home in North Kingstown, it was a quick trip onto Route 4, then Route 95S, then off at the Route 3 exit, a short drive to then make a left onto Reservoir Rd, then left into the parking lot of Coventry High School. The baseball field is just past the track and field area. When I pulled into the parking lot about 1:55, the lot was already filling up with cars. Coventry baseball fans come to games, in big numbers, this is a fact. I have been on the other side of Coventry teams over the years and their fans come ready to cheer on their players! Saturday was no exception.
The weather conditions at game time were perfect for baseball. Blue skies, a few patchy clouds, breezy at times, clear and bright, and the temperature in the high 70s/low 80s. The field was in fantastic shape. The huge trees behind home plate and the third base side created a field perimeter from home plate all the way passed the left field foul pole. These trees, I would discover later, were also the perfect shade provider for a huge throng of fans who looked to escape the blaring sun. As I was walking up to the field, the game had started with Coventry Pitcher Jayden Voelker on the mound for Coventry.
As I made my way around the right field fence and headed toward the first base dugout, I ran into former East Greenwich High School and soon to be Coventry High School Coach Bob Downey. Downey’s son, Logan, is on the Coventry Varsity squad. Always great running into Coach Downey and talking baseball. Coventry’s Voelker had pitched a quick first inning and now it was time for Central’s Avery Acuna to take the mound. A crowd of fans had gathered in the bleachers next to the first base dugout where Central High School players where. Fans were set up in lawn chairs all up and down the first base line. And like Voelker, Acuna was just as sharp in the first inning, quickly setting down the Coventry hitters.
Same can be said for each pitcher in the 2nd and 3rd innings. Voelker pitched with incredible pace. He threw hard, that is understatement. His catcher threw it back, then Voelker almost in windup mode, pitched it right back. Acuna was sharp with every pitch. A little more deliberate on the mound, but so accurate with pitch after pitch. For 3 innings, a few foul balls, very few base runners, and absolutely dominant starting pitching by Voelker and Acuna. Wow, that was awesome to witness!!!
The 4th inning provided some offensive sparks for both Coventry and Central High School. First, Central’s Anderson De Los Santos ripped a single to right center field. Before long, De Los Santos had stolen second base, sliding in to create a huge puff of dirt. He would later come around to score the game’s first run. 1-0 Central going into the bottom of the 4th inning. Then, Coventry’s Will Turner skied a towering fly ball to deep left field for a solo home run to even the score. After 3 completely shutdown innings by Voelker and Acuna, the two offenses finally had something to shout about. The score after 4 innings was all tied up 1-1.
I decided to take a walk around the field to get some other fan views of the game. The area behind home plate had a backstop, then a small cut out, then the fencing for the first base/Visitor’s dugout where Central High School resided. There were some fans behind the backstop next to the announcer’s table and also behind the fenced area next to the dugout. One such fan was Tom Verdi of Providence Sports and Leadership. Tom and I met last summer at a Newport Collegiate Baseball League game and chatted throughout the game about PSL and its players and mission. Great to see Tom again and to hear more about some of the PSL players who were playing for Central.
I was eager to see the views from under the huge trees behind the first base dugout, so I made my way passed the fence and into the woods. From there I saw a huge contingent of fans for both Central and Coventry cheering from a completely shaded area. I took a walk passed some youth baseball players, some softball players, parents, fans of all ages down to about mid left field. It was a packed area with fans but I did manage to find a spot to take some photos.
After making my way back to home plate, the score was still tied going into the 6th inning. With Central at bat in the top of the 6th inning, things got very interesting. A hit-by-pitch, followed by a single put runners on 1st and 3rd, following a umpires call of fielder interference with the runner from 1st base. It was just bad luck for the shortstop who was looking out to the outfield as the play was developing but was positioned inside the runner’s path to third. So, 1st and 3rd for Central. Then, a scorching line drive was hit to left field. Coventry’s Will Turner went for broke, dove for the baseball, and came up with it. A huge play in the game because if Turner missed that dive, 1 and possibly 2 runs score on that play. A flyout to center field ended the top of the 6th for Central with 2 runners left on base.
Despite both offenses having small glimmers of hope, Coventry’s Voelker and Central’s Acuna were just not giving an inch on the mound. Strike after strike, they each poured in fastballs, off speed pitches, and got consistent outs. The defenses for both teams smoothly played each ground ball, threw with precision to first base, covered ground in the outfield for flyballs. Coventry would put runners on, Central would distinguish their rally with a great defensive play. Central would put runners on, Coventry would be ready with a great defensive play of their own. Two equally matched teams with two dominant pitchers. Who would bend first?
And so it went into the 7th, 8th and then 9th inning. Voelker vs Acuna, both pitching into the 9th inning of a State Semifinal game. So impressive that both pitchers were still throwing really, really hard into the 9th inning. The fans were screaming on every pitch. The players in both dugouts were standing against the fence yelling and screaming for one big hit, one gigantic momentum swing in their favor. And there in the top of the 9th, Central got the momentum going their way. With no outs, Central had made a big time move with runners on 2nd and 3rd. A passed ball, then a single pushed the score to 3-1, Central. And that was all for Coventry’s Jayden Voelker who walked off the mound having pitched a masterful performance on the mound. Jason Serapiglia took the ball and was able to get some quick outs to end any further scoring threat by Central.
Central’s Acuna started the bottom of the 9th inning with a strikeout. 1 out. Then, a hit-by-pitch and walk put two Coventry runners on base. A sharp line drive to center field was hit but much to the dismay of Coventry and the delight of Central, it was caught. 2 out. Then, a rather surprising move was made to remove Acuna from the game. Central’s Justin Odsen took the ball from Acuna, who pitched an absolutely brilliant game. Odsen had come in with 2 Coventry runners on base, and 2 outs. After a walk to the first batter he faced, the bases were loaded for Coventry’s Alex Windrow. Windrow worked the count and then hit a towering fly ball to left field which tailed foul. The fans on both sides gasped as they watch the baseball spin and then curve foul. Windrow then walked to plate a run for Coventry. Score was now 3-2, bases loaded with Coventry’s Tommy Turner up next. You may remember Turner from his days on the Coventry Little League team that went to the Little League World Series a few years back. Now, here was Turner in a huge spot for his Coventry High School team.
Odsen, pitching with the bases loaded with 2 outs, started Turner off with three straight balls. A 3-0 count, with his team up just one run, in the bottom of the 9th, the next pitch was an enormous moment for Odsen. However, before he could throw his next pitch, shortstop Anderson De Los Santos called time out and went to talk to his pitcher. A big league move by a high school player to take control of the situation and be a good teammate. The result, 2 quick strikes by Odsen to push the count to 3-2. Full count, 2 outs, bases loaded, 3-2 score – honestly, for a baseball fan, it doesn’t get much better than that at a game. Odsen got set, hurled the baseball towards his catcher, and Turner swung hard. The ball traveled to deep right center field and landed in the centerfielder’s glove about 5 feet from the fence. Final score – Central High School 3 and Coventry High School 2. It was one of the best games I have seen in person all year.
Congratulations to both Jayden Voelker and Avery Acuna for your masterful pitching performances. You both have very bright futures ahead of you on the mound at the next level. This game was so fun to watch. Defensively, both Central and Coventry made the routine plays look easy and the highlight plays appear simple and routine. Although the hits and runs were hard to come by, both teams stayed in the game and did what they could to put pressure on the opposing team. The fans were in it from the first pitch and cheered until the last out landed in the Central outfielder’s glove. It was a memorable Rhode Island Baseball Experience for me and I was so happy to be a part of it.
Game 2 of the Rhode Island Interscholastic League Division 1 Varsity Baseball Tournament between Central and Coventry is today (Sunday, June 20th) at 1pm at Providence Career and Technical Academy Field in Providence. Game 2 between North Kingstown and Pilgrim is today (Sunday, June 20th) at 12pm at Lischio Field, North Kingstown. Good luck to all the players, coaches, schools, and families as you play today.
And Happy Father’s Day to all the Dads in the Rhode Island baseball community!!!