By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

HAMILTON — It was supposed to be the storybook finish. St. Augustine Prep, the No. 1 team in New Jersey and winner of 27 of the 28 games it played this season — and a team chock full of seniors who had seen heartbreak in the state championship game before — was going to beat Don Bosco Prep and walk off into the sunset with three titles in hand: the inaugural Cape-Atlantic League Tournament championship, the South Jersey Non-Public A title and the overall Non-Public A state championship.

But there’s a reason why Bosco senior Caden Dana was the Gatorade Player of the Year in New Jersey this year, and he showed why on a gorgeous Wednesday afternoon at Bob DeMeo Field at Veterans Park.

Dana came on and pitched three innings of absolutely dominant relief and added a towering home run in the bottom of the sixth to put a cap on the Ironmen’s 5-0 victory, and their first state championship since 2008. The program has won seven titles in its history and denied this group of St. Augustine Prep seniors a chance to hoist the trophy. Prep last won the title in 2018.

St. Augustine Prep (27-2) had a golden opportunity to jump ahead in the top of the first, but Bosco starting pitcher Clayton Poiley worked out of a two-on, two-out jam by getting a strikeout, the first of five he had in four innings of work. The Ironmen took advantage in the bottom of the first, taking a 1-0 lead when Pablo Santos walked, stole second, went to third on a groundout and scored on a wild pitch.

Then, in the fourth, Bosco added three runs on a booming RBI double by Kevin Jaxel and a huge two-out, two-run single to left by No. 9 hitter A.J. Zollo. That made it 4-0, and that was too big of a hole for St. Augustine Prep to climb out of with Dana coming on in relief to start the fifth.

“We knew we had to score early. We had our chances,” said Hermits coach Mike Bylone. “We knew what their game plan was by starting (Poiley). Hat’s off to them, that was the right move.”

Caden Dana, the New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year, was simply unhittable in his three innings of relief during Don Bosco Prep’s win over St. Augustine Prep in the Non-Public A state championship game. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

Poiley was outstanding, striking out five and allowing just two hits while working around four walks in four innings. Then came Dana, the big righty who throws gas, and there was nothing the Hermits could do. Only two Hermits batters reached first base in his three innings of work, and he even made an acrobatic play coming off the mound to field a chopper to end the top of the fifth. He struck out three and needed just 44 pitches to lock down a three-inning save.  

“We were fighting to the last out. We knew going in we couldn’t give guys (extra) outs. We gave them a few outs, a few runs — the little things matter in these types of games. Our guys know it, our coaches know it. We just couldn’t get it done today,” said Ryan Weingartner, St. Augustine Prep’s shortstop and one of the Hermits’ senior captains. “This one hurts. I love these guys. It’s been a long four years, and probably the best four years of my life. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I didn’t always know I was going to come here. I just want to thank my parents and everyone close around me for pushing me to this school. It made me a better person, a better ballplayer. I love all these guys, all the coaches, all my teachers. It’s been a great four years.”

“We didn’t hit the ball. We had opportunities, we left a lot of runners on base and that’s not characteristic of our year. But when you get to this level you’re facing some good arms,” Bylone said. “We had our chances. To hold this team to three hits (our guys) did their job on the mound, so give them credit for that. They broke it open in that one inning.”

St. Augustine Prep senior captain Kyle Neri gets a hug from a teammate following the Hermits’ loss to the Ironmen in the state championship game. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

The loss was gut-wrenching for the Hermits’ seniors, who lost 4-3 to Delbarton in the 2019 state championship and 4-1 to St. Joseph-Montvale in last year’s title game. They also missed an entire season in 2020 because of the pandemic. But, mixed in with the tears and frustration was an overwhelming sense of pride.

Said Weingartner, “this is a senior-led group of guys and every one of these guys has passion for this program, this team. I remember being a little kid and watching the 2018 team celebrate and win. If you like winning and you want to get better, there’s no better jersey to put on than St. Augustine Prep. It really changed my life.”

“I’m proud of this team. I told them to enjoy the journey; don’t dwell on this even though it’s going to take a couple days, or weeks — or for me, until next Opening Day to get over it. What a helluva season we had,” Bylone added. “The senior leadership that we had — this is the only game we got down that we didn’t come back. There was a lot of fight, we worked extremely hard and accomplished two of the three of our goals. They were a pleasure to coach, every one of them. We all contributed and became a family. I couldn’t be prouder of this group.

“(The seniors) were driven. Even in practice — we had some great practices. We didn’t have to reel any of them in too much, they had their goal in mind. I told them in the state tournament, you have one bad day and you’re out. If we were playing in a three-game series it could have been a different outcome.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays