Matt Williams column: Can't talk about the best North Shore baseball teams ever without these guys

Staff File PhotoRyan Cusick and the 2009 Gloucester Fishermen are in the mix with some of the North Shore's greatest baseball teams.

Reliving the 2000 Division 1 state baseball tournament for last week's 20-year anniversary look back at the champions from St. John's Prep got me thinking about the best baseball teams ever. A recent magazine feature proclaiming the best prep school baseball teams in the history of New England got the wheels turning a little bit, too.

Granted, the ranking was specifically prep schools and not high schools. And granted yours truly has a little bit of a territorial biaswhen it comes to baseball on the North Shore. In case anyone's wondering or might be working on such a list for high schools, the following may be treated as a head start or a cheat sheet.

Because any list of the leading high school baseball teams from Eastern Mass, the Bay State and, I'd argue, even New England has got to include these guys:

Start with St. John's Prep. Give me the 1999 or 2000 state championship teams over anybody. I'd concede that St. John's may have had more talented teams than those over the years (1998, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2013 come to mind). The Eagles have never had a more driven group and that's why they won in the postseason.

Ryan Leahy, Eric Shepperson, Duncan Webb, Jake Marsello, Tommy Mackor, Jay Hyland ... the list goes on. These were foxhole guys, many Division 1 and future professional players, but more importantly guys who were wired to compete. You'll see that as a theme that develops as we list off our teams ... it's not about looking back and seeing draft picks and plus-scouting reports as much it's about seeing guys who live and die with every pitch.

That's certainly the case in Danvers. Pick any of the three teams from 1999-2001, with their combined 73-3 record, and try to convince me they can't play with any team in New England, ever. They hammered the Prep's '00 state championship team, after all.

Yes, Roger Day had more 20-win teams in his time coaching Danvers than the Octomom had infants, but you'd be hard pressed to any to stack up with that first core group in terms of depth, pure power and competitive fire. Derek Lyons, Brian Marshall, L.J. DeMaino, Scott Bevan, Daryle Crowley ... again, every one of those guys are the type you'd want in your foxhole.

Peabody? If you want to talk about Big Three's, take a look at 1996. Mike Proto, 328 strikeouts and a career at Clemson; Jon Cahill, who they called 'Superman' at UMass-Lowell; Frank 'The Flash' Candela, who'd be drafted the following year? Good luck finding three players that can match up with that crew.

Sticking in Tannertown, their teams in 1998 and 2000 were also pretty good, led by the likes of Anthony Gallo, Peter Soteropoulos and Garrett Greer. You can't talk about Peabody baseball without mentioning Jeff Allison, whose 2003 squad went 20-3. The rest of that team was very good, but with only two or three balls in play likely to occur during an Allison start, would it even matter?

Speaking of Jeff's, let's go a little further back in the time machine to Salem in 1989. The Witches went 23-3 and with Jeff Juden (200 Ks that season) on the hill, they may be able to beat the 2020 Red Sox. Add Doug Canney and Mike Giardi to the mix and consider that Salem allowed only 29 runs in 26 games ... this is a squad that stacks up with anybody.

What about Swampscott? Coach Frank DeFelice's Big Blue went a combined 68-5 from 1993-95. Similar to Danvers, you could pick any one of those three teams and expect an all-out battle with any club from New England over the last 40 years.

Repeat the refrain in that the likes of Brian Hayes, Kevin Rogers, Brendan Nolan, Peter Woodfork, and yes, 'El Presidente' Dave Portnoy were relentless competitors you'd have no problem climbing in the foxhole with.

Gloucester has a team in the mix too with its 2009 Division 1 North champions (Gloucester now plays in Division 3). The Fishermen pulled off a stunning upset in the North Finals over a St. John's Prep that team featured two future professional athletes in current Milwaukee Bucks guard Pat Connaughton (who was also drafted by the Baltimore Orioles) and San Francisco Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski. But a walk-off gap shot double from Ryan Cusick, who was the best player on the field that day, and 170-plus pitches from Dylan Maki, who went on to become Northeastern's all time saves leader, the Fishermen were able to pick up a program record 20th win.

That's some of the toughest baseball teams in North Shore history. Throw them in a bracket, run a simulated tournament 25 times and I'd bet you'd never get the same final round twice. It speaks to how good the teams are — and also to how hard it is to win a baseball championship. That's the sole reason some of these above-listed teams didn't win it all.

There have been some really good baseball teams locally in recent years, some that won state titles and some that didn't. Beverly's 2018 team went 20-5; Danvers went 22-3 in 2016; Masconomet was 21-3 two years ago and went 22-2 in winning the Division 2 state crown in 2014, beating a great Gloucester team, that finished 20-3, in the North Finals. Peabody's 20-5 squad in 2013 wasn't too shabby and the Prep went 21-3 that year.

Somehow, I look back at those teams from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s a little bit differently. No slight to the baseball teams of today, but the old school guys seem tougher, mentally and certainly physically. Have we seen middle linebacker-type catchers like Shepperson and Greer very often since?

It's a gut feeling, I'll admit, the same gut feeling that tells me the 2004 Red Sox would handle the 2018 World Series champs in a fantasy matchup.

The whole attitude and demeanor of baseball has changed some over the last bunch of years; maybe I'm just an old man yelling at a cloud. But I look at these old school teams with a reverence that the new ones don't inspire.

The 13 teams listed above didn't play to stroke the opposite field or to toss it around the horn; they played to rip your face off. That's why I'd take my chances on any one of them, against anybody, from any place or any time.

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Let Matt Williams know which high school baseball team could play with the ones on his list at MWilliams@gloucestertimes.com and follow along on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.

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