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Explorers turn the tables

La Salle blanks arch-rival St. Joseph's Prep to win the Catholic League title.

RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER La Salle teammates celebrate their Catholic League title Saturday at Widener.
RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER La Salle teammates celebrate their Catholic League title Saturday at Widener.Read more

RETURNING JUST two starters is usually not a good idea for a baseball team looking to re-experience wonderful feelings.

Neither is losing an early league game by a score that would be much more common in football (20-6). To your archrival, no less. But as the Catholic League final ended early Saturday in chilly temps and wicked winds at Widener University, storming the field and forming an oh-the-humanity pile in front of home plate were the La Salle High Explorers.

Who would have thought?

Coach Joe Parisi, for one. Hey, he was even goin' the rosy route after that 14-run setback in early April to St. Joseph's Prep, the same team that dropped this one by a 10-0 score in five innings.

"I told my guys, 'That's an abberation,' " Parisi said. "I told them if they continued to work hard and listen to what the coaches were saying, we'd be there at the end.

"That's exactly what they did. No doubt about that. This is one of my most coachable groups. That shows by how many two-out hits we get, often with two strikes."

This is season No. 27 for Parisi (started in 1986, took sabbatical in 2004) and the crown is his fourth (also '88, '94 and '05). And when it came time to accept the plaque - or the hubcap, as the kids like to say because of its round shape - he ordered the two returning starters from his Class AAAA state-title team, senior first baseman Chris Melillo and junior righthander Dominic Cuoci, to join him.

As photogs snapped away, Parisi slowly counted from 10 down to 1, then shouted, "Now give them the plaque!"

The other players were footsteps away and the Melillo-Cuoci combo pogosticked right into their midst. Again everyone went crazy.

This was not the typical mercy-rule contest. Neither team scored through three innings as Cuoci and Prep righty Tom Mullin, a senior, mostly repeated a duel they'd slapped together 4 days earlier in the winners bracket final of what, for the first time this season, was a double-elimination tourney.

The Hawks, with two on and two away, had a great chance to score in the visiting fourth, but Melillo backhanded a hot one-hopper to retire Colin Cunningham.

"That was totally lucky," Melillo said. "He's a lefthanded batter with power, so I backed up a couple steps to give myself more room in case he hit a hard one at me.

"I took a quick step to my right and . . . wasn't sure if I had it. Then I saw the ball in my glove and stepped on the base. I knew there could be a big momentum shift."

Soon, the Explorers were posting a five-spot. And then matching it in the fifth to start everyone's holiday weekend a shade earlier than expected.

Run No. 1 was driven home by Jimmy Herron, who thumped a grounder to third base. And we do mean to. The ball bounced high off the bag and Chris Martin had no play.

"I guess it's better to be lucky than good," Herron said. "I saw it pop up and it hung up there long enough so everyone was safe."

Melillo and John Fabriziani (after a wild pitch plated run No. 3) added scratch infield singles for RBI and Pete Auteri got the last run home with a shot to right.

The fifth, against two relievers, featured hard hits from Joe Picard (single), Melillo (double) and Fabriziani (single to end it) for one RBI apiece, but the first three guys reached base on two walks and a plunking; a wild pitch and error also got runs home.

Wednesday through Friday, Parisi said, Cuoci had been forbidden from throwing a ball.

"He's right," said Cuoci, who allowed just one hit, Shane Williams' fourth-inning single, and recorded 12 groundball outs. "I was the designated groundball hitter to the pitchers in practice. I've relieved off 3 days' rest, but I think this was the first time I started. I was ready. Nothing was gonna stop me. I knew I could do it. So I did."

Mindful that La Salle fell in the '12 CL final (before storming forward to state honors) and an '11 semifinal, he added, "It was our time. The baseball gods were with us."

Said Melillo: "To win the state championship, against teams from all over, is amazing. This is much more of a this-area achievement, but it's really special, too."

Ditto for the 24-run swing against the archrival.