John Toppa knew he was slumping heading into the state championship series against La Salle, but he was determined to break out of it.
After hitting the ball fairly hard against Cranston West in the semifinals, he seemed closer to getting back to his All-State form, and with a little work with his dad mixed in before states, Toppa regained his pop at the perfect time.
The junior third baseman, who is already verbally committed to the University of Connecticut, went 4-for-8 in the two-game sweep of the Rams, knocking in four of the team’s 13 runs. In game one, it was his two-out, two-strike single that plated the tying and winning runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to lift Hendricken to an improbable victory.
“I was in pretty much the biggest slump of my life coming into this,” Toppa said. “It was definitely a goal of mine to try to turn it up for the biggest stage of the year. It definitely worked out.”
For his performance at the plate – and flawless defense at third – Toppa was named the series MVP.
Last year, Hendricken rode outstanding defense – particularly on the infield – to a state title. The same could be said this time, as the Hawks committed only two errors in the entire series, and they both came on the same play when first baseman Andrew Ciacciarelli couldn’t handle a groundball and then threw it away in the sixth inning of game two.
At that point, the Hawks already led 6-0, and the game was essentially out of reach.
“We talk defense from day one,” said head coach Ed Holloway. “I told them from day one, ‘Why did basketball win the state championship? Because of defense.’ We emphasize it and work on it every day.”
Starter Anthony Cofone pitched the entire game but only struck out two batters, meaning Hendricken had to make 19 putouts in the field to earn the victory. Shortstop John Willette was responsible for two of those, including a wide-ranging play in front of second base in the first inning to keep La Salle from scoring a run.
Third baseman John Toppa also made two acrobatic plays coming in toward home plate, and the outfield handled every ball hit its way.
In another big moment, catcher Gian Martellini picked a runner off of second base in game one, likely keeping the Rams from another run in what turned out to be a one-run game.
“My saying to them is to prevent big innings,” Holloway said. “We can’t give the team extra outs. We really played good defense.”
Cofone shines in big
As a sophomore, Anthony Cofone pitched in junior varsity games. This year, as a junior, he didn’t pitch in many games anywhere, as he saw action in just four games during the regular season.
Part of that was due to a knee injury he suffered during the middle of the season, which caused him to miss two weeks. Regardless, when his number was called, he was more than prepared.
Told that he would be starting game two before the state championship series even started, Cofone was lights out on Wednesday in a complete-game, five-hitter.
“I came ready,” he said. “I just knew I had to perform. I didn’t want to feel like I wasn’t ready mentally and physically. I wanted to prepare myself ahead of time.”
Though he struck out only two batters in the game, Cofone consistently kept La Salle hitters off-balance. He walked just two. He had only one one-two-three innings, but he stranded seven batters to pick up the shutout.
Despite not being in the rotation to begin this season, Cofone remained confident. Eventually, it paid off.
“I did know I was going to get to this point,” he said. “I didn’t know when it was going to happen – junior year, senior year – but here it is. It’s already happening. It’s unbelievable.”