By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
BROOKLAWN — Everything was going according to plan for the Holy Spirit baseball team in the Non-Public B South semifinals. Starting pitcher Pat Spina and the Spartans’ defense had held powerful Gloucester Catholic scoreless through the first couple of innings, shortening the game.
But then disaster struck in the bottom of the third. That’s when slugger Lillo Paxia — a Florida State commit and the state’s No. 4 ranked sophomore, according to PBR New Jersey — launched a grand slam that hit the church beyond the left-field fence and gave the Rams a 4-0 lead. An inside-the-park home run by Brendan Bean two batters later pushed the lead to 6-0, and Gloucester Catholic rolled to a 9-1 victory and into the sectional championship game.
Spina got some great defensive help in the first few innings, as the Spartans turned a 6-4-3 double play in the first and center fielder Bobby Spicer nailed a runner at the plate to end the second inning with another double play. But things got loose in the third, as Kyle Pierman singled to start the inning and Evan Giordano reached on an infield single off the glove of Spirit’s Vince Letizia at third base. Adam Bonomo followed with a perfectly placed bunt single before Paxia drilled a curveball over the left-field fence for a grand slam.
“We had our chances to jump out early on them, and we couldn’t do it. They put up a big inning on us there with a grand slam and a two-run homer, and they kind of coasted from there,” said Holy Spirit coach Steve Normane. “It would have been nice to score first. I think that would have changed the whole game. But, it’s baseball. They are a good team, so credit to them and credit to their pitcher.”
Angelo DeAngelis was in control throughout the five innings he pitched for the top-seeded Rams, who moved down from Non-Public A South this year and have been dominant, outscoring their first two opponents 15-2. They’ll take on No. 2 St. Rose on June 6 at Cumberland County College in the title game.
DeAngelis spotted his fastball well and mixed in a nice curveball to keep the fourth-seeded Spartans off balance. Holy Spirit (21-6) finally got on the board in the fifth when sophomore catcher Matt Rivera ripped an RBI double to left-center, but Gloucester Catholic (26-3) tacked on two more runs in the bottom of the fifth off reliever Jules Massella to take a 9-1 lead and put the game out of reach.
“I thought we could get it, but that was a tough shot with bases loaded. But, that’s baseball. The coaches just thanked the seniors after the game. Getting 20 wins is a pretty good season,” said senior right fielder Tyler Knox. “I’ve learned so much by being in this program, even more than I can say. We’re like brothers, so it’s going to be tough to let these guys go.”
“It was a 0-0 game and we were able to keep it close with a couple of double plays. But after the grand slam, that kind of opened up the game. We were just trying to play some small ball, get a couple runs here or there and not try to make it all up at once on one swing, but we weren’t able to come up with enough hits,” said senior outfielder and pitcher Bobby Spicer, who helped lead the Spartans to a state title two years ago. “Our team, we’ve come together. I’ve been playing with these guys for four years and there are a lot of seniors — 12 of us — so we know each other pretty well. We’ve come together and we were a very good team this year.”
Normane and assistant coaches Jason Downey and Bob Soifer met with the players in right field after the game, and there was a lot of emotion since this year’s seniors are the coaching staff’s first graduating class since taking over four years ago. Normane said he also had a message to some of his up-and-coming underclassmen, such as Rivera and Jimmy Pasquale.
“I just wanted to thank our seniors for everything they’ve given us the past four years, and remind the underclassmen of this feeling and to keep this in the back of their minds for the next 365 days. You don’t want to lose your last game. We’ve tasted that feeling of winning our last game (in 2015), but the last couple of years we haven’t been able to accomplish that goal. But, they still have plenty of time and hard work ahead of them, and if they remember this feeling that will drive them,” Normane said. “These are my guys. They were my freshmen when I got the job. I love ’em, and there’s not much more to say.”
“It’s awesome to wear this Spartans jersey. Everybody respects us because we play the game the right way, how it’s supposed to be played,” Spicer added. “Right now, I’m pretty disappointed, but we have to keep our heads up and keep going. There’s nothing we can do about it now. I’m going to look back at my career all the time, especially sophomore year, when we were able to put it all together and win a state championship. We weren’t able to make it a dynasty, but not a lot of people can say they’ve won a state championship.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN