By Matt Williams
---- — Swampscott and Danvers: the standard bearers for high school baseball in the Northeastern Conference over the last two decades.
Staying within the NEC over the last 25 years, there aren’t many programs that define excellence the way these two have. Each team has won at an incredible clip, both in the regular season and postseason, and they’ve often been battling each other for the league’s top spot.
Both programs enjoyed undisputed decades of dominance: Swamspcott owned NEC baseball for much of the 1990s and Danvers carried that torch for much of the 2000s. Both programs had dynamic head coaches with cache and attention to detail: Swamspcott’s Frank DeFelice (who won 465 games in 25 seasons) and Danvers’ Roger Day (413 career wins and counting).
In the 1990s, Swampscott won 180 games with nine postseason appearances, five trips to North finals, two sectional titles and one state championship. In the 2000s, Danvers racked up 185 wins, similarly with nine postseason berths, two North finals trips and one crown.
Among all those winners, it’s fairly difficult to pick out one team, and one season, that best defines these programs. Both the Falcons and Big Blue seem to reload each spring without missing a beat.
So we let the banners do the talking.
Each program had one team go all the way: Swampscott won the Division 3 state title in 1993, and Danvers took the Division 2 state championship in 2001. In fact, these are the only NEC teams to win state titles in baseball since 1993 (the others in the modern era are Marblehead in 1985 and 1992, Salem in 1989 and Lynn English in 1980).
How do these two all-time greats stack up against each other?
Momentum in baseball is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher. If you look at Swampscott’s record in 1993, a sterling 24-1, and Danvers’ overall mark in 2001, an sparkling 26-1, it’s clear momentum remained on the side of both clubs for the majority of the season.
That was thanks in large part to deep, experienced pitching.
For Swampscott, the rotation was a three-headed monster of seniors Kevin Rogers, Brian Hayes and Mike DeSimone. In fact, the Big Blue’s lone loss came late in the season in a makeup with Beverly and was the only time they played four games in a week all year (meaning they had to go beyond the Big Three).
Rogers was the team’s ace, going 8-0 in the regular season with a 1.00 earned run average and 50 strikeouts. Hayes was 7-0 during the regular season and DeSimone chipped in with five wins.
“The funny thing about Mike was he was such a great pitcher growing up — I think he struck out 17 in a Little League game once — and then became a great hitter in college,” said Jason Calichman, Swampscott’s current head coach who was a sophomore in 1993.
“Those guys, especially Rogers, challenged hitters. They didn’t walk anybody; I bet you could count their high school walks on one hand. They didn’t mess around, they worked fast and went right after the hitters.”
Rogers beat Wayland in the state tournament opener and earned his 10th win in an 8-1 romp over Bedford in the North final. In between, the Big Blue came from behind to beat Arlington Catholic in the bottom of the seventh, and Hayes fought through soreness by messaging his shoulder with a rubber ball to beat Medfield, 6-3, in the EMass final.
The bulk of Danvers’ pitching prowess came from their Killer B’s: Chris Bowser and Jeremy Bourgeois. Bowser was the ace, winning a DHS record 11 games and throwing 63 innings. He threw a 2-hitter in the state final, an 8-0 victory over Oxford, and struck out nine in an incredibly composed effort to beat Reading in the North final.
The powerful Bourgeois won seven games, including a sterling 1-hitter against a well-regarded Bishop Feehan team in the Eastern Mass. title game.
“He wasn’t a natural pitcher, but the best game he ever pitched was against Feehan to put us in the state final,” said Day. “We’d already used Bowser and I told him we’d use him inning by inning — and he just let it go. That was the key moment for us because it could’ve easily gone the other way if he hadn’t pitched like that.”
Billy Haskell won six games for the Falcons as the No. 3 starter and lefty Jason Bovio earned one postseason win. Bowser was 3-0 in the playoffs with a 1.11 earned run average and Bourgeois was 2-0 with a 0.95 ERA.
Like their counterparts from Swampscott, Danvers worked fast and accurately. Falcon pitching issued just 11 walks all postseason and threw strikes 66 percent of the time. Bowser threw 63 percent first-pitch strikes for his career and walked only 13 in 2001.
You’d have to imagine a one-game playoff between these teams would feature Bowser against Rogers and would be a low scoring affair. Perhaps in a series, Swampscott’s depth or the ability of either ace and co-ace to recover and throw again would become factors.
“Baseball is tough. It’s meant to be played in a series,” said Hayes, who played at Bentley after graduating. “That’s why a state tournament run is so difficult, because any team with a great pitcher can contend on a given day.”
Danvers was as dangerous as any team in North Shore history in terms of run production in 2001. The Falcons were led at the plate by Bourgeois and Daryle Crowley, but they were solid 1-through-9 and scored 269 runs in 27 games.
“That era (1999-2001) was the most power we’ve ever had. Ryan Holt, a pitcher, hit eight homers in 2000 and that doesn’t count Crowley, Bourgeois, Derek Lyons ... it was the whole package,” said Day.
Bourgeois’ 2001 season may never be matched. He drove in 54 runs, which led the state and doubles what’s considered a good season these days. He had 42 hits (nine of them triples) and graduated with 101 RBI and 17 homers.
Crowley, who batted cleanup for four years, graduated as a .454 career hitter with 117 RBI and Lyons, the shortstop, hit .415 and scored 90 career runs. Matt Valentine highlights the depth of Danvers’ lineup: the right fielder hit .469 in 2001 and was insanely disciplined with just one strikeout.
The team also hit in the clutch, with Ryan Hayes (.409 in the playoffs), Crowley, Billy Langmaid, Bourgeois, Bowser and Haskell all clubbing playoff homers. Kyle McCullough chipped in a .357 postseason average.
“Every single pitch mattered to those guys,” said Day. “In baseball, you really have to grind away and stay in the present, thinking about that one pitch. That group had that concentration, energy, desire and focus. They had a special mentality.”
Swampscott had a similar approach at the plate: they were relentless. Rogers, who earned one All-America nod and was MVP of the Eastern Mass. all-star game, hit .500 during the regular season to lead the Big Blue. DeSimone hit .350.
The Big Blue were bolstered by a group of young players that jumped into the varsity lineup with confidence and had success. Outfielder Dave Portnoy hit at a .400 clip during the regular season, and shortstop Peter Woodfork hit .295 with a .403 on-base percentage. J.J Doherty, Jimmy Seranton and catcher Traeger DiPietro were also valuable contributors.
“We had an injection of youth on that team, guys that had won a lot of big games in Little League and as kids,” said Hayes. “They had this really confident attitude about that, especially Woodfork and Portnoy, and they injected a lot of confidence in the team.”
The confidence carried over to the playoffs, where the Big Blue scored 51 runs in five games. Swampscott hit .325 as a team in the playoffs and Rogers, Portnoy, Doherty and Lindsay Parker all hit better than .400 in the postseason.
Swampscott’s determination was on full display in a razor thin win over Arlington Catholic in the North semifinals at Fraser Field in Lynn. They trailed 4-2 going into the bottom of the seventh, but the Big Blue weren’t going to go down quietly.
“I remember it vividly. We thought we were going to win and I think the other team could sense that. They knew we weren’t defeated and we were going to fight to the last out,” said Hayes.
It was a balk — called out by Parker, and the correct call — that kept the inning alive. Rogers then singled home DeSimone as the Big Blue won, 5-4, and of course wouldn’t lose again that season. It was the kind of comeback that gave Swamspcott “a feeling of near invincibility,” as Portnoy put it after the game.
“It was resiliency,” said Calichman. “I don’t think there was a game where they ever thought they were going to lose. We’d bide our time and be there at the time. Coach DeFelice used to say, ‘Bull your neck.’ Compete until it’s over.”
The same could be said for Danvers, a team that always went to the plate expected to make things happen. “Our guys were committed. They wanted it and they gave everything to the program,” said Day. “It was the No. 1 sport for all of them and they all felt like they had something to prove.”
Defense is often the overlooked part of baseball, but it’s no coincidence that these two state championship squads had two of best defensive players of their generations at shortstop. Peter Woodfork for Swampscott and Derek Lyons for Danvers were both silky smooth, multi-year starters.
Lyons, who stepped in as a freshman and was an All-American in college at Salem State, is arguably the best defensive player in Falcons’ history. He has the most assists in a season (71 in 2001) and in a career (184) and made just 33 errors in his four-year career according to the exhaustive records kept by Day.
“He’s been the shortstop for almost four years, so that’s one aspect we never have to worry about. You just know he’s going to do the job out there so, as a pitcher, you never have to worry about it,” Bourgeois said in ‘01.
“Just so consistent,” Day added. “He was outstanding defensively and knew the second basemen so well, first Marsh (Brian Marshall) and then McCollough, that they were as good as you’re going to get.”
Woodfork was equally adept in the hole for the Big Blue and went on to have a solid career in the infield for Harvard. He was an executive with the Boston Red Sox under Theo Epstein and now works in baseball operations at Major League Baseball headquarters.
“He was great from the time we were freshmen on,” said Calichman. “We had some great players: Hayes is in the Hall of Fame, Rogers is an All-American, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all those guys said the best they played with was Woody. I know I feel that way.”
Both teams were equally solid behind the plate, the other cornerstone of a good defensive ballclub. Danvers’ Scott Bevan was an energetic, heady player that was making big plays from time he stepped into the lineup as a sophomore.
“Scotty was outstanding,” Day said. “Jeremy was a pretty good catcher and went on to play 3-4 years catching for Fordham in Division 1. That tells you how strong Scott Bevan was.”
The Big Blue had DiPietro, a good defensive backstop with a big bat, who Calichman said was “a huge X-factor for us. He was getting scouted all over the place, was one of the best catchers I’ve ever seen ... and ended up hurting his wrist in football.”
Both teams had fast, solid outfields, and interestingly enough, hockey players manning first base. Ryan Hayes was the man for Danvers and Swampscott’s was J.J. Doherty, a goalie who used his well-trained glove hand to make scoops at the corner. Swampscott also had depth in the outfield, with future Boston College player Brendan Nolan stepping in to start in the state final.
Believe it or not, folks in Swampscott and Danvers might tell you that they had better baseball teams that actually didn’t win it all. The 2000 Danvers team went undefeated in the regular season and lost in the North quarterfinals at home to Masconomet, but on balance had arguably the most talent ever for a Falcon club.
The Big Blue followed up 1993 with an undefeated regular season of their own in 1995, only to lose in the Division 2 North final (Swampscott was moved up from Division 3 after winning the title). DeFelice called the ‘95 club a “push button team” because it ran like such an automatic machine.
Why, then, did the ‘93 Swampscott and ‘01 Danvers teams break through and win it all?
It could simply be a product of baseball, arguably the most difficult sport to win in high school because of pitching and the small details that can throw off a result. An unusual strike zone, a ball falling just centimeters foul — even the location of a game can dramatically change the outcome.
Both the Big Blue and Falcon programs always have a sense of family and field teams that play for each other. It comes as no coincidence that the ‘93 and ‘01 entities embodied those traits.
“We loved playing together as a team,” said Swampscott’s Hayes. “We love playing baseball, we loved winning. Baseball is so streaky, and we realized we had a chance so we maintained that confidence and maintained playing hard.”
Players from both teams say today that their practices were among the most competitive, fun things they ever did in sports. That demonstrates the kind of competitive drive it takes to win.
“They were such great friends and they all played so well together. They played with such enthusiasm and emotion,” said Day. “Everything was crisp. Every day they got after it.”
Both state titles came during remarkable three-year runs. Danvers went 73-3 from 1999-2001 and needed the 2001 state title as the final jewel to make the era complete. Swampscott, on the other hand, won at the start of a 68-5 run from 1993-95. The title was a bit of validation for DeFelice, who had taken his teams to North sectional finals in 1986, ‘87, ‘89 and ‘90 without winning.
The Big Blue dominated in the 90s and were the bar for Day as he built his program, “That’s what we strove to be. Year in year out, they were so good and so confident,” admitted Day. “We certainly looked to emulate that, no doubt about it.
“I’d say from the 1970s to now, the number of Division 1 baseball players from Swampscott, for a town that size, it might be more than any town in the country. It’s been an amazing run of baseball for 30 years.”
Who wins? It’s hard to say. At Twi-Field or down at Champions Pub, the answer is going to be Danvers. On King’s Beach or Barstool Sports, the Big Blue are a mortal lock.
That’s part of what makes this kind of exercise fun. The only thing we know for sure, given the competitiveness and baseball grind mentality of both teams, is that it would come down to the last pitch.