Published in the July 27, 2017 edition

NORTH READING – Dominant pitching … timely hitting … pristine fielding … and, oh, yeah, a comeback spirit.

Add it all together and the result is what North Reading’s Northeast Conference baseball team accomplished last weekend: a quarterfinal sweep of Tewksbury that pushed the high schoolers deeper into the league playoffs.

With their 5-3 and 12-2 triumphs, the Hornets, who finished in second place in the South Division and earned the No. 3 overall seed, improved to 9-4-1 – with just one loss in their last nine games.

In Game 1 of the series, held Friday at Tewksbury High School, North Reading spotted the hosts a 2-0 lead before rallying. Starting pitcher Ryan Connor went the distance, yielding just four hits and striking out five to keep the Hornets close. He also scored the go-ahead run in the fifth inning, starting the rally with a two-out single, moving to second on a hit-by-pitch, and then being plated on Derek Reilly’s line-drive hit to center field.

Greg Sawyer drove in the tying run with a fourth-inning single, and Alex D’Ambrosio banged out two hits and scored an insurance tally in the seventh when he came home on a Dante Centofanti groundout. Tewksbury didn’t go quietly in its final at-bat, but after a Redmen batter hit a one-out single, North Reading catcher Matt Debenedetto ended any thoughts of a comeback by gunning him out trying to steal second.

The teams had a rematch on Saturday under cloudy skies at Carey Park, a game that saw Tewksbury again score first before the Hornets swarmed back to win via the mercy rule after 4 ½ innings. Joe Wallace shined on the hill, fanning four and helping himself by snagging a hard grounder to start a bases-loaded double play to get out of a first-inning jam.

Offensively, all nine North Reading batters reached base during the game, and the Hornets sent 11 men to the plate during a five-run third inning and nine more during another five-run explosion in the fourth.

Cole Doke belted out three hits and drove home three runs, while Marco Vittozzi contributed a pair of singles, including what proved to be the game-winning RBI in the third. Dan Lignos also added to his hit total in the third inning. D’Ambrosio contributed two hits to the attack, one of those a fourth-inning triple to start the rally that effectively put things out of reach.

Tewksbury threatened to extend the game in the fifth. After Wallace struck out the first two betters of the inning, the visitors loaded the bases, but Hornets third baseman Ryan Veneziano – who had earlier made a nice running catch in foul territory to end the second inning – charged a slow roller and fired a bullet to first baseman Reilly for the final out.

“The kids have done a real good job,” said North Reading head coach Marco Vittozzi. “They’re playing good ball at the right time.

“You have to play solid fundamental baseball to win in the playoffs, and we did that against a talented Tewksbury squad. But the challenges and the competition are going to get tougher in the next series.”

With the three other Northeast Conference playoff series starting later, North Reading didn’t know its semifinal opponent at press time. The league’s top seed, Lowell, lost just once during the regular season, but that defeat came at the hands of the Hornets. Billerica is the No. 2 seed.

While the team has enjoyed a strong season, Vittozzi believes the carryover may be even more important.

“We have 24 players on the team, and they support each other and they all want to improve,” he said. “What I’ve seen is that the veteran players, those who are going to be seniors at the high school, have set the right example for the younger kids about what it takes to be successful on the field – effort, execution, and commitment. I think it’s a message that’s gotten through to them.”