Published July 12. 2014 4:00AM Updated July 16. 2014 10:42AM
Willie Rios knew. He knew what was expected of him. That all eyes were on him. And that people like to whisper.
Maybe he's not that good.
University of Maryland?
That's what accompanied every pitch he threw during the spring at the St. Bernard School.
"And I loved it," Rios said during a recent phone conversation. "I live for that. I love pressure situations."
He certainly responded. Rios, who had a 19-strikeout game against Lyman Memorial and 17 more against Waterford, has been named The Day's 2014 All-Area Baseball Player of the Year.
The Saints won 14 games and made the second round of the state tournament. Rios finished with a 6-0 record and a 1.06 earned run average, averaging 14 strikeouts per start. He also hit .468 with five homers, including three in one game.
Coaches in the Eastern Connecticut Conference were unanimous in believing Rios, a left-hander, was the league's best player.
The Arizona Diamondbacks selected Rios in the 26th round of the June draft. He said he will play at Division I Maryland instead.
"I thought my season went pretty well," Rios said. "I did what was expected, I think. I think I answered questions."
It's common for players in this region, where the weather is uncooperative, to have questions sometimes. Maybe even an inferiority complex in relation to players from the south and west. But Rios, who has attended many camps and tournaments across the country, doesn't doubt his ability.
"In my mind, I always thought I could do this," he said. "Ask any of my friends and they'll tell you confidence isn't a problem for me. Some people might call that arrogant. But that's the way you have to be sometimes."
Rios said he attended a tournament in the fall of his junior year in Florida. When they asked him to hit fourth in a lineup of some of the nation's best players his age, he knew.
It's not lost on Rios, however, despite the personal accomplishments, what his high school career could have been. He was part of a promising era with several players who have earned honors at different schools. Some left St. Bernard after former coach Bill Buscetto was asked not to return.
"We would have won a state title. Guaranteed," Rios said. "The team we had my sophomore year - and what would have been my junior and senior years - hands down, we'd have been the best team in the state. Plus, being that good, who knows who else might have come to our school?"
Still, Rios leaves St. Bernard as one of its most accomplished baseball players. It's a program that produced many greats, including former Major League catcher Brook Fordyce.
Rios said he's been told he'll be a "weekend starter" at Maryland, meaning he'll pitch in conference games. He'll also play the outfield or first base.
"I can't wait to get started," Rios said. "I've waited all my life for an opportunity like this."