A look back at the South Jersey baseball season:
St. Augustine was supposed to take a step back this season. This team was supposed to be in rebuilding mode.
The Hermits lost some key seniors from last season’s state champions, including shortstop Josh Hood, the Ivy League Rookie of the Year as a freshman at Penn. Another key starter decided not to play baseball. Projected No. 1 pitcher Cole Vanderslice never took the mound after April because of arm concerns. Projected No. 2 pitcher Gerry Peacock never took the mound at all after off-season Tommy John surgery.
But there were the Hermits in the Non-Public A state final for the fourth year in a row. And there were the perennial South champions pushing North Jersey power Delbarton to the brink before falling, 4-3, in eight innings in the championship game June 6 at Veterans Park in Hamilton Township.
“It’s going to sting because we were so close, but the sun is going to come up tomorrow,” said St. Augustine coach Mike Bylone, whose team finished in the No. 1 spot in the Top 25 rankings.
The future looks bright for the Hermits. This year’s team was led in a lot of ways by juniors such as Kevin Foreman and Kenny Levari. Fellow 11th graders Rob Ready and Brian Furey also fashioned strong seasons.
St. Augustine finished 24-5. The Hermits lost just three games to South Jersey teams.
Setting the pace on the mound was senior pitcher Jayson Hoopes, a Virginia recruit who emerged as the team’s ace.
“He got us here,” Vandeslice said.
Foreman hit .438 with 32 runs. Levari hit .400 with 18 RBIs. Ready hit .373 and started a key rally in the state final against Delbarton ace Jack Leiter with a ringing double.
Vanderslice, who threw a two-hitter in a 1-0 over Delbarton in the 2018 state final, never pitched after shutting out Gloucester Catholic on three hits over six innings in a Coaches vs. Cancer event April 28 at Mainland. But the Villanova recruit batted .407 and was in the middle of every rally against Delbarton in the state final.
“It’s tough because everybody wants to win,” said Vanderslice, who was at center stage in three straight state finals against Delbarton. “I’m just so proud of this group. They’re going to come back. That feeling stuck with me after sophomore year, and it’s going to stick with them. I expect them to be back here next year.”
There is no shortage of candidates here.
Dan McMaster led Cherry Hill West to its first sectional title since 1993. Dan Brown led Glassboro to the most wins in program history and the first sectional title since 1970. Jason Speller led Cherry Hill East to its first outright division title in 17 years. Rob Christ led Eastern to the Group 4 state final. John Oehler led West Deptford from a 2-4 start to the South Jersey Group 2 crown.
But the nod here goes to Triton’s Bob Wankel, who led the Mustangs to perhaps the program’s most memorable season since 1970.
“When I was a freshman, we weren’t on anybody’s radar,” senior Colin Taylor said. “Nobody respected us.”
This year, Triton went 20-4 and captured the Tri-County Conference’s Liberty Division title. The Mustangs made the Diamond Classic for the first time in 20 years. They went on a magical playoff run, beating both Pinelands and Toms River East in ninth-inning walk-offs before falling to Cherry Hill West, 6-3, in the South Jersey Group 3 final.
Triton led that game, 3-2, with one out in the seventh when Taylor, who had allowed just two hits, was forced to leave the mound because he had reached the 110-pitch limit.
“He changed the culture of this program,” Wankel said of Taylor.
The same could be said of the coach.
South Jersey teams went 0-4 in the state finals. But it was one of those 0-for-4s that easily could be have been a 2-for-4, or even a 3-for-4.
All four teams had good chances to win. St. Augustine took Delbarton to eight innings in Non-Public A. Gloucester Catholic lost, 4-3, to St. Mary’s of Rutherford in the Non-Public B final.
Glassboro’s setback in Group 1 still is hard to fathom. The Bulldogs led by 5-0 after six innings and lost, 8-5, to Emerson Boro. And Eastern pushed Ridgewood to the limit in a 2-1 loss in the Group 4 final.
The last time South Jersey didn’t have a state-champion team was 2009.
Baseball folks at the state finals still were buzzing about the umpire’s call that helped Eastern beat Manalapan, 1-0, in the Group 4 semifinals June 3 at Monmouth University.
Manalapan appeared to tie Eastern in the top of the seventh when pinch hitter Lou Marza’s suicide squeeze sailed over Vikings pitcher Cole Boyan’s head and landed in no-man’s land behind the mound for an apparent RBI single.
If the play had stood, Manalapan would have tied the score at 1, with runners on first and third, one out, and the top of the lineup coming up.
But the home-plate umpire called Marza out, ruling he had stepped out of the batter’s box. Video of the play created a firestorm on Twitter, with folks commenting on both sides of the call.
“I’m just glad we had an umpire with the intestinal fortitude to make that call,” Christ said.
Woodstown baseball coach Lee Ware retired after 46 seasons.
The 73-year-old Ware’s last game was a 10-0 win over Wildwood on June 4. It was the 669th victory over his career. His teams also took 413 losses in a career that began in 1974.
“I still have the fire in my belly,” Ware said on opening day. “But it’s time.”
Haddonfield’s Dylan Heine threw a three-hitter with 10 strikeouts and no walks (one hit batter) in a 7-0 win over heavy-hitting Cherry Hill West in the semifinals of the Diamond Classic on May 11 at Deptford.
Scott Shaw’s two-run homer with one out in the top of the seventh inning turned a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead and sparked visiting Cherry Hill West to a 6-3 win over Triton in the South Jersey Group 3 final May 31.