It may be their first state baseball championship game, but the Monument Mountain Spartans aren't just happy to be there.
"Focus is key," Spartans coach Tom Hankey said after Thursday's practice. "We're not going to rest on our laurels now."
The Spartans, who advanced to the final with a 5-2 win over Northbridge in Wednesday's MIAA Division III state semifinal, will meet Eastern Mass. champion Bellingham on Saturday afternoon at Fitton Field in Worcester, on the Holy Cross campus. First pitch is scheduled for noon.
Monument (19-3) will start Peter Oggiani, its top pitcher this season, against the 22-3 Blackhawks on Saturday. His most recent pitching appearance came in the Spartans' Western Mass. championship win over Greenfield.
"We have a lot of confidence in Peter," Hankey said. "He hits his spots, executes his pitches. We'll see what happens. It's a tough game to predict."
If Oggiani gets in any trouble Saturday, Hankey said he has a number of relievers available. Dominic DeFelice, Brandon Perry and Austin Pectal will be the first options, but the coach noted that James Allentuck - who threw 83 pitches over seven innings in the Spartans' state semifinal win - could throw an inning on three days' rest if necessary.
Bellingham (22-3) has seen limited postseason success in recent years, advancing to the Southern Mass. semifinal round two years ago, but nothing like this in coach T.J. Chiappone's 20 years at the helm.
"I think our success is really due to our senior leadership," Chiappone said. "A close group of kids that like playing for each other. We've got some depth with different kids contributing, and that's been a big part of it."
The Blackhawks advanced to the championship game with a 2-1, eight-inning win over North Reading in the other state semifinal. That game was played Tuesday. Bellingham scored the winning run on an eighth-inning balk, set up by catcher Michael Ryan's double and Sean Postler's sacrifice of pinch runner Jared Abernathy to third base.
The Blackhawks, who claimed the Southern Mass. championship before ending the season of North Reading and the coaching career of Frank Carey (a state record 736 wins in 47 years), have a strong complement of seniors (10 in all). Outfielder and captain Brad Rebello is batting a team-high .467 this season with 35 hits and 10 RBI, according to MaxPreps.com. He's backed up by Connor Birch's .455 batting average and Postler's .383 mark.
As a team, Bellingham is batting .332, averaging more than six runs per game. That's the challenge that awaits Oggiani on Saturday.
The Spartans' offense, meanwhile, may avoid facing Blackhawks ace David Sampson, named MVP of the Tri-Valley League. Sampson threw 119 pitches in the eight-inning semifinal win over North Reading, striking out seven batters to earn his 10th win of the year. They could face Birch, who pitched in Bellingham's Southern Mass. tournament championship win over top seed East Bridgewater last week.
Birch allowed six hits, struck out four and walked none in 6 1/3 innings Sunday.
As of Thursday evening, Chiappone hadn't settled on a starting pitcher. Sampson, Birch and Kevin Martinez - returning from an injury - are the three candidates. Chiappone said he would see who feels good Friday before determining a starter.
"We'll see how an extra day helps some of the arms. You know, this time of year, they get tired," the coach said. "I would imagine all three would pitch at some point. There's no reason to save them."
No matter who pitches, Hankey believes the Spartans will have their hands full Saturday.
"Sampson just threw 109 pitches on Tuesday, and most of his rest all year has been at least five days," he said. "We're preparing for him, because he's their stud. If I was him, I'd be asking for the ball. I'd be shocked if he didn't bounce back.
"If they throw Birch, he's no slouch. He's got solid stats."