By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP — Crooked numbers on the scoreboard. A pitcher’s best friend, especially when they come within the first three innings of a ball game.
Williamstown High starter Greg Zerbe got six runs of support in the first three innings of Tuesday’s Diamond Classic quarterfinal matchup with No. 2 seed St. Augustine Prep, and that was plenty. Zerbe did the rest — with a little help from center fielder Chris Montone, who came on in relief to pitch the seventh inning — to help lead the No. 7 Braves to a 6-4 win that puts them into Saturday’s semifinals against sixth-seeded Cherokee, a 4-1 winner over third-seeded Mainland yesterday.
Saturday’s other semifinal features another great matchup as top-seeded Bishop Eustace will take on No. 5 Gloucester Catholic.
“Getting those runs in the beginning gives me more of a cushion to throw strikes and not have to force pitches,” said Zerbe, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior right-hander. “This is huge. We grew up playing with some of these kids, playing against them in travel ball — this is one of the best teams in the state of New Jersey and coming out here and winning is a big statement win for us.”
“Give them all the credit in the world, they came out and swung the bats and played aggressively,” said Hermits coach Mike Bylone. “They took it to us. We just got beat by a better team today. There’s no excuses. We had our opportunities, we just didn’t get the big hits. All we needed was one or two big hits in any of those innings and it’s a tighter ball game.”
Williamstown (14-2) had the game’s first run just four batters in as Caden Dulin doubled down the left-field line, went to third on a wild pitch and scored on a sacrifice fly by Ryan Achey. The Braves also made Prep starter Jackson Vanesko work, forcing the senior to throw 23 pitches in the first inning, and that paid dividends in the next two innings.
In the top of the second, Joe Racobaldo doubled after Zerbe led off the inning with a walk, putting runners at second and third. Vanesko then got two quick outs, but Dulin came through again, fisting a two-run single just out of the reach of Prep shortstop Ryan Weingartner to give Williamstown a 3-0 lead.
St. Augustine (18-2) got a run back in its half of the second on and RBI single to right by catcher Austin Sofran, but things unraveled for the Hermits in the top of the third. The Braves loaded the bases on just three pitches as Achey started things off with a single, Bobby DiDonato laid down a bunt and beat it out and Matt McIntire singled to left. A two-run single inside the bag at third by Zerbe pushed Williamstown’s lead to 5-1 and leadoff man Brody Colbert tacked on another run with a bases-loaded walk.
Prep sophomore Marco Levari came on in relief and did a great job holding the Braves in check, not allowing a run in his 4 2/3 innings of relief, and that allowed the Hermits to crawl back within striking distance later in the game. Prep picked up a run in the fifth on a sacrifice fly by Weingartner to get within 6-2 and added single runs in the sixth and seventh, but Montone was able to shut the door with a flyout and groundout.
Zerbe struck out five, scattered nine hits in six innings and allowed just three runs to pick up the win, and he threw just 81 pitches.
“Just pounding the fastball early in the count, getting ahead. They put the ball in play, we knew that was going to happen, but I stuck with my pitches and when I got two strikes I’d get them to chase with a curveball,” he said. “Like I said, efficiency, pounding the zone with the fastball and letting them put it in play. I have a great defense behind me and they made plays.”
“Our team chemistry is off the charts right now. This is one of the closest-knit teams in baseball that I’ve ever played on. The biggest thing is we’re having so much fun right now. We have so much confidence. But that didn’t start off the bat, a lot of the press guys didn’t have us ranked — and we figured that was going to be the case, but we knew we were going to shock them and that’s what we’ve been feeding off of. Now we’re in the rankings — where we should have been from the start — and that’s just the momentum we’ve been feeding off of. We’re having so much fun right now,” Colbert, also a star on Williamstown’s football team, said. “Everybody is contributing and just doing their job. Not everybody has the same role. For example, me, I’m not going to hit a ball out every time, but Caden (Dulin) behind me, he can do that, so if I get on base that’s a run or two right there with Caden (hitting one out) or driving a ball into the gap. And the bottom of the lineup has been fighting to get the pitch count up, laying bunts down when they need to — just things like that. That’s the key to baseball and we’ve really figured that out this year, and that’s why we’re having the success we are.”
The win was big for a Williamstown team that has spent the entire season trying to open some eyes and prove it’s one of the best ball clubs in South Jersey. The Braves wanted to prove that making a run in last summer’s Last Dance World Series was just the start of big things.
“We used that tournament as a little boost for this year, and getting back from Covid we want to make a statement,” Zerbe said. “We really want to win the championship this year. This is huge. This is something every school wishes to do at the beginning of the year, and being in the semifinals is huge for our school.”
“This is huge,” added Colbert. “They have a couple guys from Williamstown so we take that into consideration coming into this. We beat you guys, so why are you guys going (to St. Augustine) when you could be going here? I understand it though.
“They have one loss this year, to a good Hun school, we wanted to be the second team to beat them, and we did that. The talk we had before the game, the practice we had before this game, we all just really locked in and when it’s game time we just go out there and have fun, and we’re confident.”
Coach Bylone wasn’t happy about the loss but did like the way Levari responded in a tough situation, coming on in relief with the team already trailing by five.
“We did battle back and I’m pretty proud of Marco Levari, being a sophomore coming in and shutting them down. But it’s tough against any team — and especially against a team of Williamstown’s caliber — to come back from that deficit,” Bylone said. “But we move on, the good thing is we’re playing tomorrow. This one stings and moving deeper into this tournament has always been the best state playoff preparation for us, but that’s baseball. It happens and we just have to get back at it and get back on a roll for the playoffs in two weeks.
With St. Augustine Prep’s nine-game winning streak snapped, Bylone said it’s time now to start focusing on the state playoffs. The Hermits will have some big-time tests next week to close out the regular season, including games against Ocean City, Egg Harbor Township, Mainland and Millville.
“The good thing about our schedule is we’re getting everybody’s best. We’ve faced probably everybody’s No. 1 (pitcher), especially in nonconference. Early in the year when you look at the schedule you know you’re getting everybody’s No. 1 and we’ve been fairly successful this year,” Bylone said. “You can’t be perfect every day, and today was one of those days. It’s unfortunate for these kids because we always like to go deep into the Diamond. There are no moral victories and there are no good losses, but maybe this is what we needed.”
What’s next: St. Augustine Prep hosts Millville on Wednesday at 4 p.m. Williamstown travels to Camden Tech on Friday at 4 p.m.
IN OTHER QUARTERFINAL ACTION: Top-seeded Bishop Eustace got another great outing from senior lefty Anthony Solometo, a potential Major League Baseball draft pick come July, as he fanned 15 in a complete game, 2-1 win over ninth-seeded Kingsway. Solometo allowed just two hits and three walks, and Kingsway’s Steven Maiers was nearly as good, fanning six and allowing just two hits over five innings. Eustace scored both of its runs in the bottom of the sixth to wipe out a 1-0 deficit. The Crusaders will face No. 5 Gloucester Catholic on Saturday, as the Rams ousted upstart West Deptford with a 9-1 victory. Freshman Daviel Fernandez allowed just one hit over five innings while striking out eight and walking two, and got some big-time help from Matt Leahy, Adam Gates and Jeremy Wolf, who combined for six hits and four RBIs.
The 47th Annual Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic championship game is scheduled for Wednesday, May 26 at 6:30 p.m. at Alcyon Lake Park in Pitman.