By Matt Williams
The two best baseball talents that the North Shore — and probably Massachusetts at large — has seen over in the last 15 years went head-to-head in the state tournament on a crisp night in June 2003.
What ensued when St. John's Prep and Peabody locked horns at Alumni Field in Lowell was an absolute classic. The Tanners stole a 2-1 win, figuratively and literally — a no-brainer pick for our list of the greatest high school games of the last 20 years.
In one corner was Peabody's can't miss pitcher, Jeff Allison, who would be Baseball America's High School Player of the Year, a talent who had already been chosen by the Florida Marlins in the first round of that year's Major League Baseball draft. He hadn't allowed a single earned run all year and was generally regarded as unhittable.
In the other corner was blue-chip prospect Matt Antonelli, an athlete in every sense of the word. He'd been the Gatorade Massachusetts Player of the Year in football and hockey, and was runner-up only to Allison on the baseball diamond.
Antonelli was, ironically, a Peabody native who went on to star at Wake Forest and was a first round draft pick of the San Diego Padres in 2006. He was easily the best high school hitter in the region.
Under his leadership, the Eagles relished the chance to hit the unhittable.
"There was over $3 million in signing bonuses on that field," noted Bryan Garrity, the Peabody High catcher who was a junior in 2003. "Pretty much everybody in the country knew of Matt, and the same was true for Jeff. To see two potential Major Leaguers go head-to-head in the same game, in the same year in school, and from the same town — you'll never see that again."
To this day, it is difficult to say whose performance was more impressive. That the Prep knocked Allison around to the tune of nine hits — one more than he'd allowed all season to that point — was a feat in itself.
Peabody's ace bore down, though, and allowed only a single unearned run despite all the baserunners.
Was the fact that he left the game in the seventh trailing 1-0 and came back to the hill for the ninth to close the door his signature moment? Or was it when he stole home with the winning run an inning earlier in a play that remains controversial some six years later?
USA Today picked this Division 1 North semifinal showdown as its game of the week, and both St. John's and Peabody were nationally ranked that season — a rare distinction for squads from the Bay State.
Without a doubt, the game lived up to the hype.
A Joe Namath-type prediction
To say that Allison wanted to face St. John's Prep is an understatement. Peabody's brash ace spent the majority of his senior season with one goal in mind: beating the Eagles in the state tournament.
The Tanners had been embarrassed by St. John's, 19-0, on their home diamond two years earlier; the Prep had toppled Peabody when Allison was a freshman as well. He was bent on righting those wrongs.
"We all remembered that (19-0 loss); after that a lot of people thought Peabody could never beat the Prep. They were too loaded," recalled Garrity. "The thing was, they were an older team that day and we were young. We wanted revenge."
The talent — besides Allison and Antonelli, Peabody's Ryan Moorer now plays professionally, and both teams had scores of future college ballplayers — combined with the history and the local rivalry made this game one that fans from across the state hoped the MIAA brackets would produce all season.
As soon as St. John's toppled Lexington High in its state tourney opener, Eagles' staff ace Rich Sirois spoke about how much his team was looking forward to facing Allison, saying, "It's the best thing that could happen because everyone wants to see that game. We've been waiting a long time for it."
The baseball season's main event was originally scheduled for a Thursday night, but sprinkler issues at the field postponed it a day. That gave Allison an extra day of rest and guaranteed he'd be on the hill.
It wasn't the only guarantee he had in mind.
"It won't happen this year," he said of the Prep's previous domination over Peabody in the state tournament. "Believe me, it will not happen. I'm going to make sure of that."
St. John's takes control
Perhaps Allison's words served as bulletin board material — or perhaps the Prep was as talented as advertised. Either way, they hit Allison like he hadn't been hit all season.
Tommy Haugh had three hits off of him, as did teammate Sean DeYoung. Antonelli was all over Allison's 95-mile-an-hour heater and wreaked havoc on the basepaths. Peabody made several errors in the field, and eventually Antonelli crossed the plate on a wild pitch.
The Prep's Ryan Williams, who went on to star at St. Anselm, was pitching for his squad, and runs were going to be hard to come by.
"The pitching matchup was so great that anytime someone got on base, both sides (thought) 'Here's our opportunity. All we need is a run,'" said Garrity. "When we got down 1-0, I was pretty nervous."
Things appeared bleak for Peabody when Allison (who finished with 14 Ks), left the mound and headed to the outfield in the eighth. No doubt the hot-hitting Eagles thought it was their chance to put the game away.
The Tanners summoned Moorer, who would be Gatorade Massachusetts Player of the Year in 2004 and is now in the Seattle Mariners' system. He did the job and sent his team to the dish desperate for the tying run.
Prep coach Pat Yanchus called on his own ace, the UConn-bound Sirois, who'd thrown against Lexington days earlier.
Joel Levine got the rally started with a single and moved up when Allison singled. Moorer then knocked a hard bouncer that ticked off Sirois' glove and found the sure-handed Antonelli at short.
But Antonelli's throw to first sailed wide and allowed Levine to cross with the tying run.
Allison moved to third and Moorer remained at first with two down. What transpired next will never be forgotten.
Grand theft of home
Peabody head coach Ed Nizwantowski later told reporters they'd spotted a flaw in Sirois' delivery and had given Allison the green light to steal home. With Bobby Celentano — who hit a late growth spurt and became a beast on the diamond at Salem State — at-bat and down to his final strike, Allison charged toward the dish.
Sirois fired to St. John's catcher Larry Day, who blocked the plate and looked to apply the tag. But Allison leaped in the air and kicked Day's glove off his hand and touched home.
After a moment's hesitation, the umpire ruled him safe. Peabody was ahead 2-1.
"I was putting on my gear to catch the next inning, and all of a sudden everybody's up because (Jeff) broke for home," said Garrity. "On our side we were all ecstatic, trying to get the crowd going. The Prep side was flipping out."
Bedlam ensued as Yanchus protested that Allison should be ruled out because he did not attempt to avoid a collision at home plate. Day, who played at UConn and is now an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, was extremely upset.
"The very same thing happened to us at B.C. High, except that time the ball was thrown from the outfield. There was a collision at home and the umpire threw their guy out of the game," Yanchus said after the game. "It's the umpire's judgement — I guess in his estimation there was no collision. But I saw a collision."
Despite a 10-minute delay as the call was argued, the umpires refused to budge. Allison's leap constituted an attempt to avoid the collision, they ruled.
The play, and the outcome, have remained a thorn in the sides of the Eagles for years — only adding to the contest's lore.
"It's a touchy subject. That's kind of a game you don't bring up," said Garrity.
Allison had one more trick up his sleeve. After the unflappable Antonelli singled to lead off the ninth, Peabody's No. 9 came in from right field and returned to the hill.
"I will never forget him coming back into that game," said Garrity. "When you're on the mound, it's 100 percent. You go seven innings and your legs start getting tired and your arm gets fatigued.
"To stop and come back and, after eight warm-up pitches, blow them away — that's a freak of nature."
Allison fanned DeYoung to get things going and retired Day on a sharp grounder. He then struck out Rich Gallugi with his 156th pitch of the night to end it.
"I threw 156 pitches? I don't care. We get to play again," Allison said afterward, remarkably showing little regard for his prized right arm despite having been taken 16th overall by the Marlins days earlier.
"He refused to lose. He kept saying it over and over again. He absolutely refused to lose," Nizwantowski said.
The reckless nature of putting it all on the line for one win, and the bravado he showed in doing it, was vintage Allison.
"That's Jeff for you," said Garrity, who went on to captain the baseball team at UMass. "He wanted that game badly and he basically said 'Jump on my back and I'll win this one.' He pitched his heart out — not many people can do what he did — not to mention stealing home for the winning run. I've been around baseball a long time and I've never seen anything like it."
The victory over the Prep was the swan song for perhaps Peabody High's greatest baseball class. The group that had appeared in three straight Babe Ruth World Series' (and won the national championship in 1999), bowed out of postseason play the next day with a loss to Malden Catholic in the North final.
"That Prep game was the last game we won together — and it was the greatest game I was ever part of," said Matt Mello, who went on to play at Salem State and now coaches the freshmen at Peabody High.
Led by Allison, the group included co-captain Artie Generazzo, Chris Shambos, Levine and countless college stars. Anthony Palmieri played with Mello and Celentano at Salem State and Ian Parkinson pitched for Endicott. Mark Sakelakos threw at UMass-Lowell.
The talent was no different for St. John's. Besides Antonelli and Day and Sirois at UConn, Haugh played at Bentley and Peter Frates played at Boston College. Gallugi played at Franklin & Marshall and Neal White excelled at Trinity.
That the Tanners toppled a squad that was assembled from all over the state remains a source of pride.
"You know, I played in college and I played down in Cape Cod, and nothing is like playing for your town with your friends," said Garrity. "To beat a team like the Prep, and to remember most of it so vividly so many years later, it makes you proud of the tradition we had."
"Everyone remembers that game," added Mello. "People say, 'You graduated with Allison; I was at that Prep game, what a game.' It was just unreal."