By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Brian Carmichael, longtime skipper of the Egg Harbor Township baseball team, had an array of choices on who to run out to the mound on Wednesday afternoon in the opening round of the South Jersey Group 4 playoffs. He has a trifecta of capable seniors in Ethan Dodd, Mikal Goods and Frankie Wright, all of whom have logged significant innings this year, or he could have gone with other seniors such as Gus Buzby or Jacob Dembin.
For Carmichael, the choice was obvious. Sophomore Justin Sweeney doesn’t play like a rookie, which is essentially what he is after losing out on his freshman year in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Sweeney already is committed to Rutgers University, where his older brother, Jordan, is quickly becoming a star.
Sweeney made his coach look like a genius, barely breaking a sweat while cruising through a complete game, 5-1 victory over the Renegades that puts No. 6 EHT into the second quarterfinals on Saturday at No. 3 Clearview at 4 p.m. Sweeney — who has recent victories over Holy Spirit and St. Augustine Prep — needed just 85 pitches to go the distance, striking out six, walking one and allowing just three hits and a run.
“I was honored. There are a lot of good arms on this team; a lot of good kids who could have thrown this game. I was thankful (Carmichael) gave me the ball. I was excited. I try to keep my composure out there. I was just comfortable out there. I’ve thrown a good amount of big games this year and I just treated it like any other. I was ready,” Sweeney said. “Felt great. I didn’t really try to change anything, just go out there and just throw the game. I knew it was a big game, I know a lot of guys on that team and they have a lot of good players. I just wanted to throw it like I would any other game. Once we got up by five runs I wanted to let my defense do a lot of the work. My coach always says that strikes win games, and that’s all I was trying to do — throw strikes.”
“I’ve known that kid since he was 11 years old. He’s been around the program, he knows what it’s all about, he knows what the expectations are here. He wants the baseball, he’s 5-1 and has our lowest ERA on the team and had 50 strikeouts coming into today. He’s a big-time arm. Everybody here was on board with it. There were no sour grapes about it, everybody knew he was the guy who was going to get the ball,” Carmichael said. “There are a couple of factors — it wasn’t only my decision, me and the kids are all in this together. We’re best when Ethan Dodd is at shortstop and we’ve kind of learned that throughout the process of this season. There have been a couple of times when he’s been on the mound and (not having him at shortstop) had hurt us. He’s going to be our closer moving forward. Realistically, the way Justin has thrown the last two weeks — beating Holy Spirit, beating St. Augustine Prep — it was really a no-brainer today. We have the arms, we have plenty of guys waiting to go and they were all ready today.”
EHT (19-4) scored all their runs in the fourth inning. Tristin Trivers started the rally by singling to left and Dembin followed with a sharp single up the middle. Jason Hill pinch hit and laid down a perfect bunt single that loaded the bases, and Frank Firetto and Manny Velardi both were hit by pitches as the Eagles took a 2-0 lead. Dodd, the leadoff batter, followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 3-0, courtesy runner Donovan Gevers scored one batter later and then Velardi raced home on a wild pitch to make it 5-0.
The Eagles plated five runs without an RBI hit.
“That’s Egg Harbor Township baseball,” Carmichael said. “The first thing we do every day, and you can ask any of the 22 guys in this dugout, the first thing we do is we run the bases, and the second thing we do is we bunt every single day. The situation didn’t present itself early in the game, but when it did, that’s what we’re going to do. That’s who we are, that’s what we do. It doesn’t matter who’s up, the job is to get the bunt down and it just creates havoc, and that’s what happened today.”
Egg Harbor Township probably was good enough this year to be a top-four seed in the sectional tournament, but the Eagles stumbled when big power points were on the line, losing to teams such as St. Joseph, West Deptford and Ocean City. And the Eagles were matched up with one of the hottest teams in the state. The Renegades (13-6) had lost just once — 3-2 to Cherokee — since May 1, winning 11-of-12.
“This season — when you sit back and reflect on it, with six weeks and 22 games — it was like a whirlwind every single day. We hit a little patch there where things got away from us a little bit but there were lessons learned along the way. We had opportunities that we kicked, like us losing to St. Joe, big power points; us losing to West Deptford, big power points; us losing to Ocean City — so we kind of accepted where we were at No. 6 because it was nobody’s fault but our own (that we weren’t seeded higher). The guys know that, we’ve been talking about power points since Day One,” Carmichael said. “Were we happy we were getting Shawnee? No. Did we feel comfortable? We scrimmage them every year, we played them in 2019 as a No. 16 seed and beat them, we played them on April 24 here and beat them. Going into today, I thought that both teams were even. We played them the first time and they had four hits, we had four hits; they made two errors, we made two errors; we walked a couple guys, they walked a couple guys; we knocked their starter out early and they knocked Sweeney out early. Sweeney only went 2 2/3 against them the first time. But you learn lessons throughout the season, and we knew going into today, I told the guys the team that makes the least amount of mistakes will win this game. That’s how even both programs are.”
“Going into this game, I knew a lot of the kids (on Shawnee) and I went in there with a strategy and just stuck to it,” Sweeney added. “This is huge. I’m proud of the team, we’ve stuck together and we made it a goal (to advance in the playoffs). It’s a great feeling and I’m proud of these guys.”
What’s next: No. 6 EHT travels to No. 3 Clearview in the South Jersey Group 4 quarterfinals on Saturday at 4 p.m. Shawnee’s season is complete.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays