By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
BROOKLAWN — Nobody can say the Holy Spirit baseball team ducked anybody this season. The Spartans came out of the gate in the second game of the season having to deal with Chase Petty’s 100-miles-per-hour fastball and a Mainland team that is now No. 1 in the state, according to nj.com’s weekly Top 20 poll.
Eight games into the season the Spartans — who were tabbed by several publications as the No. 1 team in South Jersey before the season began — were what seemed like a lackluster 4-4. But head coach Steve Normane has been down this road before. He guided the 2015 Spartans to a Non-Public B state championship by playing a very difficult regular-season schedule, and that inevitably helped toughen up Spirit for a strong playoff run.
Normane is back as skipper this year after taking over the softball program for a couple of seasons, and he knew if Holy Spirit wanted to beat Gloucester Catholic and win a South Jersey championship, the Spartans were going to have to play a brutal schedule. They did just that, as seven of their nine losses came against teams currently ranked in the Top 20 or who were ranked when Spirit played them. Getting knocked around a little bit helped Spirit take down Gloucester Catholic, the No. 7 team in the state, 9-7 on Thursday afternoon and for the first time since 2015 Holy Spirit has won a sectional championship.
“That was the plan, to stack the schedule and make it as hard as possible. We had this Gloucester Catholic team circled from early on — we figured if we were going to win a South Jersey title and have the opportunity to play for a state title, the road was going to go through Brooklawn. So, everything we did leading up to this was for the sole purpose of winning this game. It paid off. It probably wouldn’t have made much sense to people if it didn’t pay off, but I’m glad it did. When things work out to your plan, it makes the coaching staff look smart, for sure,” Normane said. “It would have been a disservice to the seniors to say we’re going to go for 20 wins and that’s all we care about, because when it comes down to it, in that South Jersey title game in a hostile environment, the experiences they had this year certainly paid off.”
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Now, Holy Spirit (18-9) gets an opportunity to play for the Non-Public B state championship when it takes on Morristown Beard on Wednesday at 4 p.m. at Veteran’s Park in Hamilton Township, Mercer County. St. Augustine Prep, a 6-5 winner over Red Bank Catholic in extra innings Thursday in the Non-Public A South championship game, plays immediately after, at 7 p.m., against St. Joseph-Montvale for the overall Non-Public A state championship.
Spirit got off to a great start against Gloucester Catholic (22-4), as leadoff hitter C.J. Egrie laced a triple to start the game and scored on a bunt by starting pitcher Jayden Shertel.
“C.J. starting the game like that was enormous because it showed that we were there, and we meant business,” Normane said. “The plan was to score first and get Jayden the lead, and we know he can pitch the way he pitched. I think that settled Jayden right in.”
Holy Spirit added another run in the second when Gavin MacNatt scored on an error with the bases loaded. The Spartans extended the lead to 5-0 with a pair of runs in the fourth, on an RBI double from Shertel and a two-run double by senior outfielder Shane Solari.
Meanwhile, Shertel was cruising through the first couple of innings before running into some trouble and giving up a pair of runs in the fourth and another in the fifth as the Rams cut the deficit to 5-3. Spirit responded with huge sixth inning, scoring four runs to take a 9-3 lead. The rally was highlighted by an RBI single by Steven Petrosh and a two-run single to center by first baseman David Hagaman. But Gloucester Catholic wasn’t done, rallying for four runs in the bottom of the sixth to climb to within 9-7. But junior lefty Van Patten came on in relief and was able to get the save. Patten’s father, Mark, passed away in September of 2019 after a long battle with colon cancer.
“The plan was to use Jayden to his maximum and he gave us everything that he had, and that’s what we expected from him. He ran into a little bit of trouble and had to work out of some jams, but we were able to take him out with the lead and eventually get to Van, who has closed out every playoff game so far and has done a great job with that. It was nice to see Van step up on that mound, especially with his dad smiling down on him. I’m sure his dad would have been proud of him,” Normane said. “It felt like a 15-round boxing match. Every time one team threw a punch the other team threw one right back. There was never an easy moment — even when we went up 9-3 we knew it wasn’t going to be easy but we were able to never relinquish that early lead we got.”
The list of teams Holy Spirit lost to this season reads like a who’s who of New Jersey baseball, including Mainland, Don Bosco Prep, Pope John, St. Augustine Prep, Egg Harbor Township, the Hun School, Cedar Creek, Clearview and Ocean City. But, like coach Normane said, that was all a prelude to what has become a championship playoff run for the Spartans.
“I had to communicate that to them when we go up against Don Bosco or The Hun School; playing all these tough games and taking some tough losses early on, the reason being so we can come out and win against a Chase Petty, or a Gloucester Catholic in the playoffs and get a chance to compete for a state title and get a ring at the end of the season,” he said. “They got it. In the beginning I think they were questioning it, but once they saw it they knew it was a battle-tested way of thinking. We did that in 2015. We went into those playoffs with a losing record because we played a helluva conference schedule that year in the CAL American. I tried to mirror that a little bit this year and give this team as many challenges as they could face so that at the end of the year they were ready to do what they did.”
What’s next: Holy Spirit vs. Morristown Beard for the Non-Public B state championship, June 16 at 4 p.m. at Veteran’s Park in Hamilton Township, Mercer County.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays