WEST WINDSOR, N.J. - The mile-high popup off the bat of Christian Brothers Academy lefthander Dan Avella stayed in the air long enough for the players on Gloucester Catholic's bench to ready themselves for a rush to the mound to begin what certainly would have been a wild celebration.
The ball stayed airborne for enough time that the Gloucester Catholic faithful could throw their arms around one another, another sectional title just a squeeze of the glove away.
And the ball certainly was in the windy air long enough for someone to get underneath it.
But as unexpected as a dud outing by Cole Hamels, the ball dropped. And so did the jaws and hearts of all clad in Gloucester Catholic colors. By the time it was picked up, two CBA runners scored, ending what is certain to be remembered as one of the most devastating losses in the storied Rams' baseball history.
Final score in the South Jersey Non-Public A title game yesterday at Mercer County Park: CBA 5, Gloucester Catholic 4.
"That's just baseball," dejected Rams coach Dennis Barth said. "We were 8-8 at one time, and no one expected us to be here. But I did. When everyone else was counting us out, we made a run and we had it. We just gave it back, that's all."
Though it seemed to have control of the game throughout, Gloucester Catholic (20-9) never put away the Colts (20-8), though it had numerous opportunities.
Then came the fateful seventh.
After getting a leadoff flyout, Rams pitcher Mike Eliasen got CBA lefty Matt Luongo to ground weakly to short, but the ball took a bad bounce just before shortstop Steve Bruno was ready to scoop it. CBA's Mike Hanlon then hit another roller to Bruno, who body-blocked the ball toward second, where second baseman George Spingler scooped it up to force Luongo.
Eliasen then hit leadoff hitter Anthony Cirillo with a pitch, bringing up Avella, who lofted the high popup to short leftfield. Bruno ranged out from short, but got turned around on the ball. Centerfielder Steve McSherry was also in the area, but leftfielder Sylvio DiCristo seemed to have the best shot to make the play. As he reached to get it, the ball glanced off the heel of his glove and rolled toward center. Hanlon and Cirillo both hustled around the bases, with Cirillo scoring the winning run standing up.
"When I hit the ball, I thought it might be a bleeder," Avella said. "The wind was a factor today and it was on that play."
Also a big factor was the Rams' inability to take advantage of scoring opportunities, as they left 11 men on base and had a runner tagged in a rundown between third and home.
"We dodged a lot [of bullets]," said CBA coach Marty Kenney. "They probably had two or three base runners in five of the seven innings [exactly right]. It put a lot of pressure on our defense."
The Rams opened a 3-0 lead with runs in the first, third and fourth off CBA 6-5 junior righty Pat Light, who entered with an 11-0 record and had allowed only four runs all season. A run by the Colts cut it to 3-1 before the Rams upped it to 4-1 in the top of the fifth, when Steve Wilgus came around to score on a single by Bill Donovan.
But CBA cut it to 4-3 in the bottom of the fifth, courtesy of some sloppy Gloucester Catholic fielding. Luongo roped a one-out single to left and advanced to third when Bruno missed a Cirillo grounder. Avella then hit a single to right that went under the glove of charging rightfielder Wilgus. When Wilgus finally corraled the ball, his throw into the infield sailed, allowing Cirillo to score all the way from first.
Gloucester Catholic appeared to gain back the momentum in the bottom of the sixth, when Barth called a pitchout with a man on third and nobody out, foiling an attempted suicide squeeze after a short rundown. Eliasen then retired the next two batters to end any damage.
That came an inning later.
"You could tell, once the ball got hit, the wind was howling up there," said Eliasen, who struck out five and allowed six hits and only one earned run. "It started off near center, then started carrying over. I didn't know who was going to end up with it."
As it turned out, no one did. And a 12-game winning streak and the chance for a 20th sectional final fell from the Rams' grasp.
In other tournament games:
* St. Rose 4, Bishop Eustace 1: Top-seeded St. Rose scored all of its runs in the first three innings and held the third-seeded Crusaders to only three hits in capturing the South Jersey Non-Public B title. Eustace finished 21-9.
* Robbinsville 15, Maple Shade 5: The Wildcats, who captured their first South Jersey Group 1 title since 1982, fell in the state semifinal and finished 18-5.
* Allentown 4, Buena 2: The Chiefs took a 2-1 lead into the seventh, but fell in the Group 2 state semifinal when the Central Jersey champ scored three in the final inning. Tyler Callahan drove in both runs in the first inning for Buena (17-9).
* Wall Township 3, Timber Creek 0: The Chargers (15-7) had only two hits and committed three errors in losing the Group 3 state semifinal. *