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FHS Nine Resilient While Battling Defeat in State Final

The 2023 Franklin High baseball team lost to Taunton, 7-2, in the Division 1 state championship game at Polar Park in Worcester. Photo courtesy of unter Smith.

By KEN HAMWEY, Staff Sports Writer
June 18 was a difficult day for Franklin High’s baseball team — on two fronts.
The top-seeded Panthers lost in the Division 1 state final game to Taunton, 7-2. But, before journeying to Worcester to face the Tigers for the second straight year in a winner-take-all finale, they were at a funeral home attending calling hours for a classmate.
First up, the game, which was dominated by the Tigers. A state champion for the second straight year, the Tigers have now worn the crown three times in the last four seasons, and they’ve compiled a 10-0 record their last two seasons of playoff baseball. The D-word is often used too quickly to label a team a “dynasty,’’ but coach Blair Bourque’s contingent is in that category. No ifs, ands, or buts. 
Winning pitcher Johnny Escobalez threw a complete game, limiting the Panthers to five hits and surrendering one earned run, making life easy for Taunton.
The Tigers took a 1-0 lead in the first inning, but the second stanza is where the Tigers took control and left no doubt about the outcome. 
Leadoff hitter Braden Sullivan smacked a two-run double to left. Two batters later, Dawson Bryce doubled down the right-field line for two more runs, highlighting a five-run inning that gave Taunton a commanding 6-0 lead. Three throwing errors by Franklin didn’t help the Panthers’ cause. 
“You can’t make mistakes against Taunton, and, unfortunately, we played our worst inning of the year in the second inning of the state title game,” said Franklin coach Zach Brown. 
Ryan MacDougall, who hit the winning home run in last year’s 2-1 state title win over Franklin, added an RBI double for the Tigers’ final run. 
Franklin got an unearned run in the third inning when Rex Cinelli scored on a throwing error, and its other run came in the sixth when Henry DiGiorgio singled to left, advanced to second on a wild pitch then scored on Luke Sidwell’s line-drive base hit to centerfield.  
Taunton always presents a major challenge, noted Brown, “They’re well-coached, and they do it all. There’s no holes in their game, and their lineup, one through nine, puts pressure on defenses.’’
Brown feels fortunate to be coaching top-notch, character guys. “A seven-inning game goes fast,” said Brown. “You have one bad inning and you’re behind the eight-ball. It’s extremely difficult. These guys played tremendous baseball all year, but more importantly, they’re just tremendous young men.’’
The Panthers, with a 23-4 record, displayed lots of resilience and character competing while dealing with the deaths of two classmates, Anthony Gates and Nick Gaspar. Gates died in an auto accident, and the players attended his calling hours the same day as the final. Gaspar had passed away a month earlier.
“Our players knew both of them, and they knew their siblings,’’ Brown said. “They did the best they could to turn a negative into a positive. It’s tough, but they showed a level of brotherhood where they look out for each other. Franklin is a close-knit community.’’
At noon, players set up batting practice at the high school, then drove in groups to Oteri Funeral Home, wearing shirts bearing Gates’ name on the back. They paid their respects, then went back to batting practice. Their bus arrived at Polar Park at 4:45 p.m.
“For me, this group of guys will always be memorable and special,’’ Brown said. “Losing to Taunton should be separated from what our kids had to endure. The Tigers beat us because they played at a higher level. They were well-prepared, and we respect that program. Our players learned at a young age that life is fragile, and they dealt with a difficult challenge head-on to get back to the state final.’’
Brown, in his 10th season as FHS coach, has never had a team fail to qualify for the playoffs. His 2018 squad won a state title by defeating Central Catholic. 
The Panthers advanced to the final this year by defeating Lexington, 5-1; Walpole, 5-2; Bridgewater-Raynham, 2-1; and Methuen, 4-0. 
Here’s a thumbnail look at what made the Panthers’ 2023 season memorable (comments provided by Brown):
FIRST BASE — Jase Lyons (senior tri-captain). Our best all-around athlete who filled in at third base, the outfield and pitched in relief. Co-offensive player of the year. A Hockomock League all-star.

SECOND BASE — Luke Sidwell (senior). The Hockomock Scholar Athlete of the Year, he also was an honorable-mention all-star. Steady on defense and very dynamic on offense. Electric on the bases (19 stolen bases).
SHORTSTOP — Henry DiGiorgio (junior). Dynamic competitor. Our clean-up hitter, who led the team in hits. Has a high baseball IQ. 
THIRD BASE — Ben Jarosz (senior). Brought an edge to the team. Hard-nosed competitor who’s at his best in pressure situations. A grind-it-out player. 
CATCHER — Tyler Bellan (senior). A coach on the field, he’s a defensive catcher with a high baseball IQ and a cannon for an arm. Threw out 11 runners trying to steal. A great work ethic, he blocked the plate effectively.
CENTERFIELD — Ryan Gerety (senior). A three-year veteran, he was a catalyst as our leadoff hitter. Dynamic in center, he had three assists, relying on a strong arm. Played well in pressure games. Led team in extra-base hits (10). 
RIGHT FIELD — Eisig Chin (senior tri-captain). He hit No. 3 in the lineup. Suffered a wrist injury and missed three games. A big presence on offense, he got on base often and drove in runs. He’s got power and has a strong arm. 
LEFTFIELD — Rex Cinelli (junior). A solid leftfielder, he emerged this season. No. 9 in the lineup, he provides offense and played his best baseball in the tourney.

PITCHING — Al Mucciarone (senior tri-captain). Ace of the staff who finished 8-0 in regular season with an E.R.A. of 1.19. Had 99 strikeouts, 13 walks and gave up 41 hits in 64.3 innings. A great competitor and based on his stats, he’s the best I’ve coached. His fastball traveled in the 87-92 mph range. 
Dillon Cashin (senior). His first season ended as rookie of the year. Had a 3-1 record, 2 saves and an E.R.A. of 0.71. Worked 19 innings, yielded 9 hits and 2 earned runs. Had a calming presence and used a sneaky fastball, curve and slider.
Austin Campbell (junior). His numbers: 9-0 record, one save, 87 strikeouts, 24 walks, 57 innings, and 33 hits. Throwing an 87-mph fastball, he formed an outstanding one-two punch with Mucciarone. Great competitor with good control and good assortment.
PITCHING RESERVES — Jake Shaugnessy (junior). Had a 1-1 record and an E.R.A. of 0.45 in 15 innings. Matt Miller (junior). Had a 2-0 record with a 1.37 E.R.A. Both players gave us great effort when called on. Dependable swing guys.
DESIGNATED HITTER — Ethan DePaolo (senior). A tough competitor who was a solid contributor all year. 
Franklin’s baseball journey involved learning some life lessons. And, as their coach emphasized: “The players used baseball as a vehicle to work on habits for success in life.’’