By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — To say the Delsea Regional High baseball team was up against it on Tuesday afternoon might be an understatement. The Crusaders were the No. 12 seed in the 24-team Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic, they were on the road and they were facing one of the best pitchers in the state in EHT senior righty Cameron Flukey, who tops out around 97 miles-per-hour.

But Delsea never shies away from any challenge, and the scrappy bunch in the graphite grey uniforms did just enough to squeak out a 4-3 victory in the Bunting Family Pharmacy Game of the Week and advance to Saturday’s semifinal round of the tournament that unofficially crowns a South Jersey champion. The Crusaders will take on upstart No. 17 seed Cherry Hill West, which rolled past No. 8 Buena, 7-1, on Tuesday a few days after knocking off No. 1 Shawnee. The other semifinal features No. 2 Gloucester Catholic, a 3-1 winner over No. 10 Cherokee, squaring off against No. 6 Bishop Eustace, which slipped past No. 3 St. Augustine Prep, 2-0. Both semifinals will be at Deptford High, which Delsea vs. Cherry Hill West at 11 a.m. followed by the other game at 2 p.m.

“Today, we executed,” said Delsea skipper Joe Smith. “If we can get our bunts down we’re tough to beat. (On Monday) we didn’t get a bunt or two down and it cost us the game. Against Flukey, not too many guys are going to put the ball in play hard, but we said we didn’t want the headline to be ’18 strikeouts by Flukey.’ But it was a great game, a great atmosphere. The Diamond Classic is like the playoffs.”

Flukey did strike out eight and allowed just one earned run in six innings, but the Crusaders — after giving up a one-run lead to fall behind 2-1 — rallied for three unearned runs in the top of the sixth inning to take a 4-2 lead. EHT answered with a couple of doubles, including an RBI drive to the gap in left-center by Broeden Thies that cut the deficit to to 4-3 and chased Delsea starter Ryan Harrison. But fellow senior George Starr came on in relief to shut the door with a couple of groundouts, then worked a 1-2-3 bottom of the seventh to secure the save.  

Delsea right fielder Frankie Master reacts after recording the final out in his team’s 4-3 win over Egg Harbor Township in the Diamond Classic quarterfinals. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

“Really, what was going through my mind, was just to get guys out however I could. Ryan threw a great game against a good team, so I was just trying to get the win. I tried to stay as even-keeled as I could and focus on the guy in the batter’s box,” Starr said. “That’s kind of what I’ve been doing my whole high school career, and even when I was younger. I feel stress free on the mound. It’s just me and the batter. I know I have a great defense behind me, I let them work and just try to do my job.”

Delsea (12-4, 4-3 Tri-County Liberty) got off to a great start as Frankie Master led off with an infield single, went to second on a passed ball and took third on a wild pitch before scoring on Zach Maxwell’s bunt single. Flukey, a Coastal Carolina commit, worked out of the jam with a couple of strikeouts then settled in and was untouchable until the sixth.

EHT (10-7, 6-4 Cape-Atlantic League American) answered with two runs in the bottom of the third to take the lead. The Eagles loaded the bases on a singles by Robert Brown and Joey Velardi and an infield error. Jay Salsbery then beat out a potential double-play ball to score Brown, and Velardi came around to score on a single to right by Jake Cagna. But that was all the Eagles could manage against Harrison until he started to run out of gas in the bottom of the sixth.

“I just came out here and tried to prove myself. Last year, I didn’t pitch all that well and I didn’t pitch that much. So I wanted to come out here and prove myself against a good team and hopefully get back into the rotation for the state playoffs,” said Harrison, who has allowed three runs or less in all but one of his six appearances this spring. “I felt good the first two innings, then we had that whole third inning fiasco, and I came out in the fourth and just wanted to get through the lineup. I just grinded my way through it. We stuck with the same game plan the whole way. The slider was working well, it froze up a lot of guys and got a lot of guys to pop up. The fastball, we kind of pushed that off to the side a little bit. I kind of pitch backwards.”

“I wasn’t worried coming into this game. Flukey is a great pitcher, and if you strike out you kind of have to be cool with yourself. But I knew if we got a couple runs for (Harrison), he’s been doing great and in his last outing in the Diamond Classic he did awesome against Kingsway,” Starr said. “I have a lot of confidence in him. He’s a senior, he’s gritty and he’s going to go right after everybody.”

Cameron Flukey, a Coastal Carolina University commit, allowed just one earned run and struck out eight in six innings of work. (South Jersey Glory Days photo/Sully)

Harrison and Starr combined to allow just six hits while striking out seven and not walking a batter.

“That’s high school baseball. You can’t walk people. Our guys were pounding the zone,” Smith said. “In high school baseball, anybody can beat anybody on any given day and Group 3 will be very tough. And Cherry Hill West (on Saturday) has been playing well. But this is the fun time of year. Every game means something. And this is a fun team to coach.”

Harrison and Starr said the Crusaders — who are coming off a South Jersey Group 3 championship a year ago — didn’t take too kindly to earning the No. 12 seed in the Diamond Classic. They thought they had done enough to garner a top-eight seed and a first-round bye. Now they are out to prove all the doubters wrong.

“Maybe this tells people we should have been a higher seed, but it really doesn’t matter. Whether we were the No. 1 seed or the last seed we’re still looking to prove the type of team we are. We’re just having fun. When we get on a roll we’re just having fun playing baseball. This proves why we should be here in the semis, and hopefully the final,” Starr said. “We were surprised (about the No. 12 seed) but we try to stay away from that stuff, the rankings. It would have been cool having a bye, but we like being underestimated and we like playing baseball, so the more games they give us the better.

Added Harrison, “a lot of teams have underestimated us, so it’s nice to get another statement win in the Diamond Classic. We’ve beaten Kingsway and Egg Harbor, so it feels good. We love to play hard and we stick by the motto of ‘Full Speed.’ I feel like we can, 100 percent, win this tournament and make a deep run in the South Jersey Group 3 playoffs.

“They weren’t happy about (getting the No. 12 seed),” coach Smith said. “These guys have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. I love coaching these kids. They are tough, hard-nosed kids who never give up, and they are gamers. Coaches coach, but the kids make the plays, throw the strikes and get the base hits. They are the ones grinding it out.”

What’s next: Diamond Classic semifinals: Delsea vs. Cherry Hill West, Saturday, 11 a.m. Gloucester Catholic vs. Bishop Eustace, 2 p.m. Both games at Deptford High School.

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