JACKSON - Twice within the first two innings, Shane Hickey revealed some startling power, launching a pair of majestic three-run homers to energize Jackson Liberty.

But, as each deposited in nearly the same location beyond the fence in right-center field, the sophomore briskly rounded the bases unexpressive, like a guy simply taking care of his business.

However, if you wanted to catch Hickey smile, you had to be at the ballpark just before the game began. He was among a group of teammates who surrounded home plate to cheer on Jackson Liberty student Matthew Deck, the Lions’ representative to throw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to a crosstown showdown with Jackson Memorial as part of the sixth annual Strike Out Autism Challenge.

Deck set the tone for a sun-splashed event with a perfect strike, firing right behind Michael Friese of Jackson Memorial, who did the same, two aces with joy on their faces as they basked in the thunderous and deserving ovation by establishing an inspiring mood. Besides delivering fitting fastballs right down the middle, Deck and Friese offered perspective that stirred the hearts of all observers and put the contest in its proper context.

Ceremonial first pitches before Jackson Memorial at Jackson Liberty Baseball for Strike Out Autism Challenge (Photo by Gregg Lerner)
Ceremonial first pitches before Jackson Memorial at Jackson Liberty in for Strike Out Autism Challenge (Photo by Gregg Lerner)

“As soon at Matt got to the field, he was all pumped up,” said Hickey. “That was awesome to see how much it meant to him. It meant a lot to us, too.”

The magnitude of the matchup pitting unbeaten and fourth-ranked Jackson Liberty opposite fifth-ranked Jackson Memorial in a highly-anticipated renewal of a rivalry with town bragging rights on the line and its outcome – a 14-4 victory for Liberty in six innings that featured the depth of its imposing lineup along with defensive polish – was overshadowed by the cause that brought the two teams together.

“We had a long talk after practice (on Friday),” noted Jackson Liberty coach Jim Rankin. “It’s a big game with a good team in our crosstown rival coming in and it’s a big non-conference test for us. But, in the grand scheme, we are playing for autism awareness. We had Matthew out here to throw the first pitch and when I talked to him yesterday, he was jacked up about it. I love winning but that aside, the moment of the day was watching those two kids throw out that first pitch because that’s what this day is about, raising awareness for autism and recognizing kids with special needs.”

Moved to make a difference in honor of Deck and the cause, Hickey more than met the demands. He cracked a three-run blast in the top of the first that staked Liberty (6-0) to a 3-1 lead and belted another in the second when the gap widened to 7-1. While the offensive fireworks produced in a 3-for-3 performance that included a double, four runs and six RBIs were greatly appreciated, so was the grit displayed in his first start of the season on the hill.

The right-hander worked four innings, scattering six hits while picking up a strike out along the way. But, his guile to get 12 outs surpassed what Rankin expected.

"We know what Shane is capable of at the plate," said Rankin. "We were down our top three guys. Matt Pickus, Richie Dordas and Kevin Ritz were all on the shelf due to the pitch count. We mapped out to work the ball to Nick DeCarlo, which we ended up not needing. We wanted to get 6 to 9 outs from Shane and he gave us 12. That was a huge bonus. He did a great job pitching to contact and the main reason he got the ball was because of the maturity beyond his years. His composure would never lead you to believe he’s a sophomore."

"I knew I wasn't going to blow anything by them," a modest Hickey shared. "I had to get outs and get them one at a time."

Hickey was the beneficiary of a Lions' lineup taxing, long and shrewd at the plate. Jackson Liberty compiled nine hits, stamped by a walk-off grand slam by junior right fielder Scott Wiercizewski in the bottom of the sixth. Eight different resources scored at least once within an offense that attacked when timely and showed patience when necessary.

"I admire this lineup," Wiercizewski said. "From one to nine, there is raw power to drive the ball gap to gap and a lot of guys who can put the ball in play. It's fun playing with this team with all we can do. The pressure on opposing pitchers is insane. They get when one guy out and the next one can still do damage."

In the second, Liberty erupted for four runs, but it was an 11-pitch at-bat by junior shortstop Alex Torres that ended with a walk that kept the line moving, giving way to Hickey's second home run.

Junior left fielder Charlie Rudderow lashed a two-run single in the fourth and finished with three RBI while junior catcher David Melfi went 2 for 3 with two singles and a run scored.

"We’re always taking the game seriously, but that first pitch was something special," said Melfi. "I enjoyed that and thought it was great, not just for us, but for those kids."

Sophomores Carmine Petosa and Ryan Lasko each cracked an RBI single, sophomore catcher Andrew Sefick went 2 for 2 with a double and senior shortstop Mike Dimino lifted a sacrifice fly for Jackson Memorial (6-2).


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