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For this CT high school pitcher, what a difference a year has made as his team rolls into semifinals

COVENTRY – Last year Kevin Johnson was a freshman. He pitched in some games for the Coventry High baseball team, the Class S runner-up, but he was young and sometimes would struggle when he made a mistake.

“He’s always had good stuff, but it’s a different level and it’s hard when you’re in ninth grade pitching against 17-, 18-year-old kids,” Coventry coach Ryan Giberson said. “He had some ups and downs, which is to be expected last year.”

This season Johnson is older and more experienced and he pitched in his biggest game Saturday, the Class S quarterfinal against Canton. He took a no-hitter into the fifth inning, struck out 10 and gave up three hits and a run in an 8-1 win over the No. 9 seeds.

Top-seeded Coventry (22-3) will play the winner of the North Branford-Somers quarterfinal game in the semifinals on Tuesday at a time and place to be determined. Coventry lost in the championship game last year, 6-2, to Haddam-Killingworth.

“I felt really good to start off the game,” Johnson said. “I felt like I was throwing hard. Especially with my defense behind my back. In the first inning, we definitely made some good plays.

“Last year I didn’t really get a chance to pitch in the postseason. This year I feel like I’ve proven myself. I feel more mentally strong. I’m definitely more composed on the mound. I was a little bit wild (last year), emotional.”

Mather Spear had a double and scored two runs, Gavin Covell had an RBI double in the second inning and Nathan Spear and Evan Menzel drove in runs with sacrifice flies.

Johnson was tested early. With one out, he walked the second batter, then Coventry turned a double play to get out of the first inning. He walked the first two batters of the second then struck out the next batter, got a fielder’s choice groundout to knock out the baserunner on third and another strikeout to end the inning.

“Defense behind me was super good,” Johnson said. “Evan Menzel made a lot of good plays. We turned the double play in the first. Woj (Jacob Wojtkowiak made a play) in right field. I had a little rough inning in the second and the sixth, a little rough spot. I just kind of got through it. Last year I would overthink it.”

Coventry got a run in each of the first and second innings (Spear doubled and scored on a wild pitch and an overthrow to third base in the second). But the Patriots broke open the game in third when Menzel singled and scored on Covell’s double to start it off. They batted around and scored three more runs to go up 6-0.

Johnson gave up his first hit, a double to James Canny in the fifth inning. In the sixth inning, Jackson Senecal led off with a double and with one out and Sam Lincoln singled in Canton’s only run. Johnson then walked a batter but struck out the next batter, and Menzel, who will play at the University of Maine next year, made a diving catch of a line drive by Joseph Nadeau to end the inning.

“Defense … that lets you breathe,” Giberson said. “We made a great play in right field. The first inning, runner at first, we turned a double play. That was a hard double play. Evan plays as good as anybody you see at short.”

Giberson has four pitchers but said Johnson throws the hardest.

“Last year he was up and down, but it was a good experience for him,” Giberson said. “He was a freshman. He’s got really good stuff. This year he’s been really consistent. He’s grown a lot emotionally, physically he’s better.

“I mean, he’s the guy for this kind of game, stuff-wise. I thought he did a nice job of settling down early.”