HAVERHILL — Call it a hunch, a coach's instinct, maybe even a bit of a wild gamble.
Whittier Tech coach Joe Boland opened the year with a pair of freshmen, Andrew Wells at third and Nathan Frongillo at second, holding down half his infield.
"Really, I wasn't sure what we had there," said Boland, whose Wildcats travel to Brockton today (4 p.m.) in the Eastern Mass. Division 3 championship game against Norton. "We were inside, and they looked good, but everyone looks the same in the gym. I had heard about them as pretty good athletes coming in. When we got outside, they just started making plays."
Frongillo and Wells have each played giant roles in what is an earth-shattering run to the Division 3 North title for Whittier, a program that entered this season with one preliminary-round tourney win over at least the last quarter century.
As Boland said, each came in with impressive athletic backgrounds. Both have exceeded any expectations the coach and his program could have ever dreamed up. Haverhill's Frongillo, whose older brother Brett dominated as an All-ISL talent in both football and baseball at Groton School, played freshmen football but had the season shortened by a shoulder injury. He also played on the Cats' freshman hoop team.
When baseball rolled around this spring, there were no sub-varsity thoughts.
"I was hoping to start," he said. "I was pretty proud of the accomplishment, and I just kept working at it."
Frongillo opened the year in the No. 8 spot in the lineup and hit right from the get-go.
"He's really had an amazing year," said Boland. "We moved him up to the No. 2 spot in the lineup for the Pentucket games to end the regular season. He just makes things happen. (Leadoff man) Steve Surette seems to keep getting on base and Nathan keeps moving him along."
Frongillo spent much of the season at well over the .300 mark, and he's done nothing but pump up the numbers in the stretch run, going 5 for 13 in the Cats' four tourney wins.
Meanwhile Wells, who starts at third when Dillon Ryan is on the hill and shortstop when Billy Lafferty toes the rubber, has been just as solid at the hot corner.
The 15-year-old from Methuen has had plenty heaped on his plate at Whittier.
Coach Kevin Bradley has the 6-foot-2 right-hander on the inside track to replace Ryan at QB next fall. And Wells was bumped up from the freshmen to JVs in hoops.
This spring, he's relied on that strong arm and soft hands, while hitting .265 with 20 RBIs.
Boland, too, has big plans.
"He's a gamer, who has gotten stronger and stronger as the year went on," said Boland. "He's going to be a heck of a pitcher. I'm hoping that he'll be the next Dillon Ryan for us."
About the most important thing each frosh did was fit in.
"We had the core pieces on this team, with Ryan, Lafferty, Surrette, Nate Allen, Colby Starner," said Boland. "We needed the freshmen to fill in the holes. And they have."
Ironically, fierce competitors over the last four years in the travel hoop ranks, the two have relied on each other through the tough times.
"Competing against Nathan, I got to know him a little bit, and then with football and basketball, we've gotten to be friends," said Wells. "This spring, we've had an awful lot of time to talk about things that were going on, what's happening, it's been huge."
The Cats, champions already, are no means done. And the freshmen have been sure to enjoy the ride.
"It's been a great run, a lot of fun," said Frongillo. "But I don't think we're done."
Third man in
While much of the focus has been on the emergence of Whittier Tech's two freshmen starters, coach Joe Boland has one more diamond hiding in the rough.
Keep an eye out for Anthony Licciardello.
"He's a strong hitting catcher-third baseman, who is really going to help us," said Boland. "We've used him as our primary pinch-hitter (going 5 for 20) and he really can hit the baseball."