By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

LINWOOD — Around this time last year, Joe Vaccarella — then just a wide-eyed freshman making his first varsity start — got roughed up a bit by St. Augustine Prep in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Mainland Regional High. He allowed six hits and three runs in four innings while walking three, and his Gloucester Catholic Rams lost, 4-3, to the rival Hermits.

On Sunday, during the 2023 version of the Classic, Vaccarella was in command through five innings, striking out seven and allowing just two hits through five innings to lead Gloucester Catholic to a 2-0 win in the CVC showcase game. He mixed a fastball in the mid-80s with a very good slider, and although he walked four he was able to get out of any jams with strikeouts and some help from his defense.

The Hermits really only threated once, in the top of the sixth inning, but Ryan Williams was thrown out at the plate by left fielder Henry Pancoast while trying to score on a double down the line by Logan Franks. At that point, Evan Brasburger was on in relief and he was just as good as Vaccarella, tossing two shutout innings of relief with a pair of strikeouts.

“That was probably one of the best (performances) of his career, to be honest,” Gloucester Catholic shortstop Matt Leahy said of Vaccarella. “We’re happy to have pitchers like we do on this squad that we can roll out there every day. And Brasburger is a kid who did kind of come out of nowhere. He was carving us up in the preseason and they gave him a shot, and he’s been doing really well. He’s been our guy out of the bullpen.”

Gloucester Catholic sophomore Joe Vaccarella was dominant against St. Augustine Prep in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, throwing five shutout innings in the Rams’ 2-0 win. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

St. Augustine Prep (9-3, Cape-Atlantic League American) managed just four hits, two singles by Williams, a double by Franks and a single by C.J. Furey. That’s a testament to how well Vaccarella and Brasburger threw, especially considering the environment and the rivalry these teams share. They go at it every year with an intensity that sometimes causes a few warnings from the umpiring crew. The win was big for the Rams, too, who have gotten off to a uncharacteristically pedestrian 6-4 start.

“We had to win, probably, for our Diamond (Classic) chances, but we’ve been playing some really good teams. We’re not playing any patsies. We’re going all over the state playing the best teams — that’s what we do. We’ve been short on pitching because we’ve had some guys hurt, but we’re coming around and getting healthy as we go along. Joe threw really well today, Brasburger was good out of the pen and he’s been lights out except for one game. So, we’re coming along. We’re getting healthier and we have some guys back. Nobody’s crying for us, but we’ll be pretty good once it’s all said and done,” said Rams coach Dennis Barth. “(Joe) did a real good job throwing strikes and controlling his emotions. These guys go back-and-forth for some reason, two Catholic schools yelling at each other the whole game, I don’t know why. But he kept his composure. Last year he pitched here, we gave him the start as a freshman, and he started warming up about an hour-and-a-half before the game. But he kept his poise (this year), pitched great, made pitches, got the breaking ball over when he wanted to and threw strikes. (St. Augustine Prep) has a good club. They lost a lot of guys from last year, but you have to give them credit, they are a good team and they really battle with two strikes. They hung in there, fouled pitches off and got his pitch count up.”

After a scoreless top of the first, Gloucester Catholic (6-4, 3-1 Tri-County Royal) got off to a quick start offensively as Leahy led off with a single to center, stole second, went to third on an errant throw on the steal and trotted home on an RBI single to right by catcher Damon Suriani. The Rams made it 2-0 in the second when Sal Serici led the inning off with a single to center, stole second, went to third on a single by Pancoast and scored on a groundout by Guy Lynam. That was all the Hermits gave up, as Marco Levari and Furey combined to strike out six in six innings of work.

“I know a lot of the kids on that Prep team. We went and watched their game yesterday, and like any other game, I just want to go in there and do my job,” Vaccarella said. “I knew we were going to get some run support. It was a close game, definitely a pitchers’ duel. I tried to work the outside corner and use all my secondary pitches, which really worked a lot today. My slider was really good today and got a lot of swing-and-misses. If I don’t have that slider it’s completely a different game.”

St. Augustine Prep senior Marco Levari was impressive in his start, allowing just two runs on a couple of hits through five innings. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

The win was the third in the last four games for the Rams, who got off to a 3-3 start, suffering losses to the Hun School, St. Joseph-Metuchen and Williamstown. They’ve got some tough games coming up, including against Jackson Memorial in the Thank You Classic and a road game at Kingsway on May 1.  

“It’s been a little bit of a rough start but some guys have pitched in and we’re bringing it back and we’re getting back to the old ways. As you can see, it was big team energy in the dugout and that wasn’t really there the first 10 games of the season. So, we really just have to click as a team and we’ll be out here like this every day,” Leahy said. “All week we haven’t really known if we’re going to be in the Diamond Classic or not and a win like this definitely helps our confidence. Hopefully we can go on a little bit of a run and make it into the Diamond Classic and hopefully win it, then bring that into the playoffs.”

Getting performances like the one Vaccarrella turned in on Sunday certainly will help Gloucester Catholic’s Diamond chances.  

“(Last year’s CVC Classic) was my first ever varsity start and in the first inning Ryan Weingartner hit a home run. So we had to come out and show them what it’s about this year,” he said. “I was definitely a little anxious (last year). I was pumped up, it was my first varsity start, there was like 1,000 people here and I was looking around going, ‘where am I?’ But this year it was a totally different game, and (Prep) is a totally different team from last year. I just came in there and tried to have fun. This is probably the most fun game of the year for us — we’re on YouTube, you have all the people here, why not just go out and have a good time?”

Vaccarella said he was ready for the moment, and whatever big games Barth decides to put him in going forward, he’ll be ready for those, too.

“With my travel team, we play a lot of really good teams in the summer and they gave me the ball against some highly ranked teams. And throughout my baseball career my coaches have all put me in situations that have been big games,” he explained. “Championship games, big scenarios. And today was just another one of those big scenarios where I had to go in there and just do my job.”

What’s next: Gloucester Catholic travels to Highland on Tuesday at 4 p.m. St. Augustine Prep travels to Audubon on Thursday at 4 p.m.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays