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Marc Narducci: Cherokee throws away title chance

The Chiefs, known for defense, made nine errors in losing the Group 4 sectional final.

TOMS RIVER, N.J. - The Cherokee baseball fans stood and applauded as the players took the long walk down to the postgame meeting in right field.

Barely acknowledging the cheers, the players walked with their heads down, possibly still in shock after the Chiefs' postseason run ended in an uncharacteristic manner.

Ranked No. 1 in South Jersey by The Inquirer, eighth-seeded Cherokee saw its 10-game win streak and its dream of a South Jersey Group 4 title end after yesterday's 8-6 loss at third seed Toms River North in the sectional final.

The fact that Cherokee lost to the defending sectional champion is by no means a shock. What was stunning was seeing the Chiefs literally drop the ball and also throw it errantly in their attempt to take home that South Jersey sectional title.

Known for their high-powered offense and consistent defense, the second part of that equation betrayed the Chiefs, who committed nine errors.

To put that in perspective, Cherokee (18-6) had committed 31 errors in its first 23 games. Ace lefthander Dan Smith (7-1) pitched well, allowing just five hits and one earned run in going the distance.

Smith and the Chiefs weren't able to overcome the defensive miscues. The fact that Cherokee trailed, 8-6, but had runners on first and second in the seventh inning with no outs and had the lead run at the plate is fairly remarkable.

The Chiefs still showed plenty of fight, but the errors had been like one body blow too many.

Just like hitting, when a team begins booting the ball or throwing it wildly, it becomes contagious.

"Absolutely, it does," Cherokee coach Marc Petragnani said. "When it starts, the players are wondering who is going to mess up next."

Cherokee scored all of its runs in the fourth inning to take a 6-1 lead. The Chiefs knocked starter Mark Leiter out of the game after 32/3 innings of work. Leiter, the son of the former major-leaguer by the same name, allowed three key extra base hits - a solo home run to Eric Barbieri, an RBI double that broke the 1-1 tie to Bill McGoey and a two-run triple by Nick Allen.

It was looking so promising for Cherokee.

"Mark lost his composure but we kept battling," said Toms River North coach Ted Schelmay.

At this point, it's the team that can grind it out in the face of adversity that often come out on top. That is how Toms River North won this game - with as much grit as hit.

Trailing, 6-1, with two outs in the fourth, Schelmay called on closer Brian Gilbert, who was playing third base. Gilbert shut the Chiefs out, pitching 31/3 hitless innings.

While Gilbert was effective, one wonders how shell-shocked Cherokee was after committing five errors in a Toms River North four-run fourth inning and three more in a three-run fifth.

It appears the extra outs that the Chiefs gave affected Smith, who issued three walks, all in the fifth inning.

"I was getting a little tired out there," Smith said.

Still, the Monmouth-bound lefthander stood tall in defeat, refusing to point fingers at the defense.

"We win as a team and lose as a team," he said. "I make mistakes, and everybody makes mistakes."

At that point Smith and his teammates didn't want to hear about what a great season it has been, winning the 16-team Joe Hartman Diamond Classic and capturing the Olympic Conference American Division, arguably the deepest in South Jersey.

In their mind, the Chiefs gave this away, and it's hard to argue with this logic. Yet Toms River North deserves credit for taking advantage of a rare off-day in the field by Cherokee at the most inopportune of times.