By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
HAMILTON — As the clocked ticked closer to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday night at Bob DeMeo Field, site of the public school state baseball championships, Buena Regional fifth-year senior and star pitcher Joey Kurtz buried his head into his father’s chest as five years of emotions came spilling out. All Jim Kurtz could do was hold on and let his son have that moment of heartache. The Kurtz family had come so far with this Buena High baseball program, and it was all over after a gut-wrenching 5-4 loss to Pequannock in which the Chiefs jumped out to a 4-0 first-inning lead only to see it slip away.
One of the greatest seasons in school history ended without a state championship, as the Panthers’ Nick Werner shut the door in the seventh in relief of Joe Sabbath, who pitched a whale of a game after a rough start. Buena pounded out four hits and four runs in the top of the first, but Sabbath allowed just four hits the rest of the way and finished with six strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings. Werner struck out three and didn’t allow a hit in his nearly two full innings of relief.
“We scored the four runs (in the first inning) then we smacked some balls and they made some good plays. Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way. It was their day. But when you have a four-run lead, you hope you can hold that. Pitching has been our dominant force all year, and unfortunately it just didn’t work out for us today,” said Buena coach Tom Carney. “We hit (Sabbath). I don’t feel like we got dominated by any means. They made plays, and we had opportunities to drive the tying run in multiple times and just didn’t get it done. That’s the game of baseball, and the game of life. Sometimes it doesn’t go the way you want it to.”
The game couldn’t have started any better for Buena (27-4), as shortstop Tre Carano drilled a ground-rule double to lead off. Catcher Ryley Betts followed with a single to left and a walk to Cole Shover loaded the bases. Zach Strouse was hit by a pitch to drive in the first run and infield singles by Aidan Carano and Charlie Saglimbeni pushed the lead out to 3-0. Aidan Carano scored on a wild pitch later in the inning to make it 4-0 before Sabbath worked out of the jam.
Pequannock (26-5) rallied right back in its half of the second, scoring four runs off Kurtz with the benefit of just a double and an infield single. The inning featured an infield error, two hit batsmen and a walk, and the big blow was a two-run single to right by leadoff hitter Donovan Cassel. He played a big role on defense, too, robbing Saglimbeni of a hit with a runner on second and two out with a diving catch on a flare into shallow right field. That helped preserve the Panthers’ 5-4 lead, which they took in the bottom of the fourth on an RBI groundout by John Vanaria. Buena had the tying run at second in both the fifth and seventh innings but couldn’t get the big hit when it needed to.
It was a dream season for Buena, which last won a state championship in 2014. What made it possible was six 2022 graduates coming back to play one more season of high school baseball thanks to the bridge rule, which allowed any player affected by the Covid-19 pandemic one extra year to compete at the high school level. One of those was Kurtz, who had one of the best pitching seasons of anyone in South Jersey, finishing with 77 strikeouts and just 14 earned runs allowed in 62 1/3 innings, pitching to a 1.57 ERA.
“I really appreciate the fact that they came back, put pride in their school. They had an opportunity, and they made the most of it. This was the game we had to get to, we just didn’t get the result that we were hoping for. When you allow a team to score four runs on one hit, that’s a killer. If they smack the ball around, you tip your hat. The things that are in your control, that you’ve done all year, and those things don’t happen, you have to look at the mirror, and that’s going to be a hard thing for us. When a team beats you, sooner or later the pain goes away, but when you know you had the game in hand — and when you had opportunities even after that bad inning when you could have driven in a run and didn’t — there will be a lot to look at. We’ll all have to look in the mirror a little bit, but hopefully the pain will fade for these kids and they’ll understand how great a year they really had,” Carney said. “(The lasting memory) is just how great of kids they are, and even how they dealt with this. They fought to the finish, I never saw any pouting throughout the course of the game. There aren’t a lot of egos in our dugout, and that makes coaching a joy, to know the kids want to play the game how you dictate it. It just didn’t work out, and I feel bad for them.
Some may have criticized the Buena players for coming back as post-graduate students to play one more season of high school baseball, but coach Carney saw it as a great opportunity to have one more chance to play baseball with their buddies. Not all of the six will be going on to play college baseball.
“These guys took advantage of an opportunity. The key to life is, when you get an opportunity do you take advantage of it? These guys were given an opportunity and they took advantage of it to the utmost limit,” Carney said. “It could have been a storybook ending, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. They put their names on the map and I’m proud of them. They didn’t want that, ‘it’s OK, it was a good loss’ speech and I didn’t give it to them. In the end, though, I’m very proud of what they did this year.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays