Before the season started, Sacred Heart had set its sights on the Diamond Classic championship.
The Lions, with winning pitcher Anthony Ramos and Isaac Gonzalez leading the way, reached that goal yesterday at Deptford High, rallying with a pair of runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to post a dramatic 6-5 win over Shawnee in the 35th annual Joe Hartmann South Jersey Diamond Classic title game.
"Even before the season began, we started talking about what we wanted to do this year," said Gonzalez, who drove in the winning run. "We decided that winning the Diamond would be one of our goals. The Diamond is definitely for bragging rights."
In capturing its first Diamond Classic, Sacred Heart (25-1) became the first Cape-Atlantic League team to take the title since Millville in 1978.
"It means a lot to win this," Ramos said. "Teams from the CAL don't get enough respect. We were knocked out in the first round the past two years, so it's a great feeling for us."
Shawnee (18-3) sent its ace, Quinton Miller, to the mound in the seventh inning to protect a 5-4 lead.
Miller was promptly greeted by a double off the bat of Jon Schmidt. Juan Velazquez followed with an RBI single, tying the score.
A single by Blake Cain and an intentional walk to Ramos loaded the bases, setting the stage for Gonzalez.
The junior rightfielder smacked a fastball through the right side, sending Velazquez home with the winning run.
"I came up ready to hit - I had to step up," Gonzalez said. "I kept my head down, caught a fastball on the outside corner, and went with it. Miller's such a great pitcher - it's an honor to get a hit off him."
Shawnee had taken a 4-0 lead in the first inning, fueled by Anthony Montefusco's two-run double. The Renegades seemed poised to put the game out of reach in the fourth with runners on first and second with no outs.
Ramos, who relieved starting pitcher J.T. Triantos, got out of the jam when the Lions turned a triple play - the first ever in the Diamond Classic - to snuff out the threat.
Sparked by the triple play, Sacred Heart took advantage of a Shawnee miscue and an RBI single by Josh Moran to close the deficit to 4-3 in the bottom of the fourth inning.
"The triple play was big and gave us a lift in a spot where we could have been in trouble," Ramos said. "After that, I tried to keep the game as close as I could. I've been coming in all season in situations like that. I used my cutter and fastball to keep them off balance."
Shawnee 400 010 0 - 5 7 4
Sacred Heart 000 301 2 - 6 12 2
WP: Anthony Ramos. LP: Quinton Miller. 2B: SJon Hydock, Anthony Montefusco. SHJon Schmidt, Juan Velazquez.