By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
PITMAN — The St. Augustine Prep baseball team faces pressure that few high school baseball teams in New Jersey ever will. The Hermits have been — for many years now — one of the best non-public programs in the state, and with that comes plenty of jealousy and scorn out of teams from the Philadelphia suburbs to the beaches of Ocean City.
Every game the Hermits’ opponent is nearly foaming at the mouth to try to knock Prep from its lofty perch. It becomes an obsession of sorts — beat The Prep and it’s a huge feather in your cap.
Many try, and many fail. The Hermits came into the Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic — South Jersey’s unofficial championship tournament — at Alcyon Park as the No. 1 seed and the No. 2 team in the state. Prep brought with it a 19-1 record, its only blemish a 5-2, extra-innings loss to Vineland, and left with a big, shiny trophy.
The Hermits fought back from an early deficit to score a 4-2 win over Lenape — winner of nine straight prior to the championship game on Wednesday night. Prep senior shortstop Ryan Weingartner played the hero’s role, blasting a solo home run in the third that gave the Hermits a 3-2 lead, and coming on in relief in the top of the seventh to shut the door with three straight strikeouts with the tying runs on base.
St. Augustine won its third Diamond Classic championship and its first since 2017.
“I’ve been here before, this team has been here before. My job was to come in and close the game. I’m just so lucky and blessed that I got it done. This is our first Diamond Classic championship in a while and it means a lot to us,” Weingartner said. “My goal was just to get on the mound and throw strikes, and at the plate just drive guys in. We had some early baserunning miscues, I got a 2-2 fastball and I was just lucky to hit it over the fence.”
Lenape (15-3) took a 1-0 lead in the first inning then tacked on another run in the second on an RBI single by Dylan Shank. A walk to leadoff man Zach Barbash loaded the bases, but junior lefty C.J. Furey was able to work out of the jam with a strikeout. Furey went five innings to get the win, scattering six hits while striking out seven and walking three.
St. Augustine Prep (20-1) tied the game, 2-2, in the bottom of the second as Mason Dorsey doubled, went to third on a groundout and scored on an RBI double by Marco Levari, who then scored the tying run on a single to right by catcher Austin Sofran. After Weingartner gave Prep the lead in the third, Dorsey followed two batters later with an RBI single to center to make it 4-2.
“From Nos. 1 through 9 we can hit,” said Prep senior captain Kyle Neri. “I have faith in every one of our guys, and so does everyone else on the team, including the coaches.”
That was it for the scoring, as Lenape’s Chase Topolski and Ricky Snyder put up zeroes the rest of the way, as did Furey, Holden DeJong and Weingartner. Weingartner was impressive, catching two Lenape batters looking before striking out a third to end the game.
“That’s what my game plan was that inning, with two guys on, just throw strikes. That’s all I was saying in my head. Throw strikes, make them put the ball in play, and they didn’t, so it worked out,” he said. “We always here the talk behind our backs. We’re the St. Augustine Prep Hermits, and that talk is year in and year out. This year, we’re having a really good year so we just want to keep the momentum going.”
As satisfying as it was to win the Diamond Classic for the first time in five years, Weingartner and Neri said this is just the first step in the ultimate goal of winning the inaugural Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship as well as a state title. Last year, Prep won 23 games but lost the final one, 4-1, to St. Joseph-Montvale in the Non-Public A state championship game.
“We went through a lot of good teams (to get here) but I think this proves we’re the best team in South Jersey,” Weingartner said. “We’re going for it all. This was goal No. 1, we have two more goals — the conference and a state championship. We’re going for it all this year.”
“There’s definitely a bunch of pressure, especially for the older guys since this team is very senior-heavy. It was our first time in the Diamond Classic final, and it’s something we’ve been gunning for. Now, we have other games to win. We want to win a state championship,” Neri said. “Every game we just take it like we are 0-0 and we have something to prove every time. We’ve been really holding on to (the dream of a state title). We’re doing everything we can to get there. We’ve all had that feeling of getting there and getting it torn right from our hands in front of us, so we’re hungry. We want it.
“This is definitely not a final thing,” he added. “We just have to keep moving. This is over now, we can enjoy it for tonight, but come (Thursday) we’re right back at it. There’s no time to take a break. We’re only a few weeks away from the final game of the season, so we have to stay focused.”
What’s next: St. Augustine Prep travels to Jackson Memorial on Friday at 4 p.m. Lenape travels to Hammonton today at 4 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays