By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
THOROFARE — Cedar Creek baseball coach Ryan Flannery had a look like someone had just sucker punched him a few minutes after the South Jersey Group 2 semifinals had ended. If his upstart Pirates, the No. 6 seed in the sectional playoffs, were going to be eliminated against host West Deptford, he wanted it to be on a clean base hit and not a wild pitch with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning.
But the final week in May is a wild time in high school baseball, and anything can happen. The Pirates were nearly out of an almost impossible jam, with two out and the bases loaded — after the Eagles had runners at second and third with nobody out — but a curveball from sophomore righty David Hagaman bounced at the plate and got away from sophomore catcher Dan Giovannantonio. West Deptford’s Gabe Finocchi raced home with the winning run as the Eagles walked off with a 2-1 victory and a berth in the sectional championship game against top-seeded Haddonfield on Friday.
You can’t really fault Hagaman; he was trying to make a great pitch in a precarious situation for any pitcher, and Giovannantonio did everything he could to smother the ball. That’s just the way the game goes sometimes in the postseason. The game featured everything a coach would want in a semifinal matchup, like great pitching, outstanding defense and guys getting on base — and some of the things coaches fear in big games, such as base running mistakes and the inability to move runners into scoring position.
“We just told our guys that if you play the game long enough there are going to be times when you are on (the winning) side of it. Unfortunately, we were on this side of it. That’s just baseball. It’s tough, I know it’s tough for the kids to swallow, but if you play the game long enough there are going to be feelings like this,” Flannery said. “We had some miscues, we missed a couple bunts, we got picked off, didn’t see a ball through the infield — all those little things are magnified in the playoffs. In a 1-1 game on the road, those plays have to be executed. We have to make those plays in the future if we want to continue to be a successful program.”
West Deptford (16-6), the No. 2 seed, took an early 1-0 lead but Cedar Creek (16-10) rallied to tie the game, 1-1, in the top of the fourth on an RBI double down the left-field line by Sean Brady that plated Hagaman, who had singled and reached second on a passed ball. The Pirates then loaded the bases before Finocchi, West Deptford’s starting pitcher, got out of the jam with a strikeout. Steven Kaenzig started the game for Cedar Creek and allowed just one run on two hits in 5 2/3 innings, and Hagaman surrendered just one hit in his 1 1/3 innings of relief. He recorded a huge strikeout to end the bottom of the sixth as West Deptford left the bases loaded. But West Deptford’s pitching was just as good, as Finocchi struck out seven in 4 1/3 innings and reliever Jack Murphy punched out six batters without allowing a hit over the final 2 2/3 innings.
“Steven has been our guy since Day One of the program, really. He’s a big-game pitcher, he knows how to get outs, he’s crafty, and he pitched tremendously. And David Hagaman, coming in as a sophomore in that situation, got some big outs and some big strikeouts. It’s a growing experience. It’s nothing they want to hear right now, but it’s stuff they will have to overcome. We only have three seniors in the program, so our future should be bright,” Flannery said. “Part of it is getting the kids to believe, and they are definitely on board now and believing. We told them to remember this feeling in the offseason when they are working out, and use this as motivation. That’s the only thing you can really do — you can grow and get better, or you can let it define you and have it be a setback. I think our kids are going to chose to grow and learn from it. We should be back here next year and in years to come, that should be the new standard.”
West Deptford’s winning rally started when Finocchi beat out an infield single despite a great play by Kaenzig at shortstop on the slow roller up the middle. Leadoff man Colby Garrison walked and a wild pitch put runners at second and third with nobody out. Hagaman then snared a wicked comebacker off the bat of Joe Hartmann for the first out and fanned Murphy for the second before intentionally walking R.J. Mason to load the bases. Hagaman was ahead in the count on Ian Murphy before the wild pitch ended the game.
Flannery said as much as this loss hurts, he trusts that his team will be able to learn from it and come back even stronger next year, especially considering that all but three players will return. The Pirates turned some heads by not only playing well in the Cape-Atlantic League, but also making it further than they ever had in the state playoffs.
“It’s exciting, and the credit goes to our players and staff, they’ve built this. I feel like I have a great staff with Craig Markley, Jason Fox, Tommy Rheault and John White. I trust them and all the players we have. We talked about how in the beginning of the year this was a group of individuals and we definitely formed as a team,” Flannery said. “We’re going to use this as motivation in the offseason and come back and be a contender again. That’s what it’s all about. We’re knocking on the door. Hopefully we can learn from these pressure situations and continue to grow and get better. There’s nothing I can say right now to make them feel better, I just wanted to let them know that I’m proud of them, the coaching staff is proud of them, watching them go from a young team to competing against a great West Deptford team and losing a tough 2-1 ballgame in the seventh inning. We’re seeing growth.”
What’s next: No. 2 West Deptford travels to No. 1 Haddonfield on Friday for the South Jersey Group 2 championship. Cedar Creek’s season is complete.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays