By: John Knebels
Photos: James Williamson
Friends’ Central School won’t be competing in the PIAA baseball state tournament that begins in a few days.
That’s good news for the PIAA . . .
On May 27, the Phoenix completed one of their best seasons ever. In a makeshift post-season tournament named the “Comeback Classic” in honor of persevering through the pandemic that threatened the season throughout the spring, they won three games, 10-running both Hill School and Germantown Friends before defeating Perkiomen School, 7-5, to finish with a six-game winning streak and a 25-6 overall record – the school’s most wins ever, eclipsing the previous mark of 18.
Because they are not a member of the PIAA, the Phoenix cannot participate against the best teams in Pennsylvania in the annual marquee event. That’s a shame, because they belong in the mix. Taking into consideration some of the competition that FCS has faced – including a 19-1 non-league win over three-time defending Catholic League champion La Salle in early April – the Phoenix would definitely instill fear in their foes.
“It is very frustrating,” said junior pitcher John Fitzpatrick. “We have the team that would compete for the title. We also caught fire towards the end of the season, rolling through pretty much every team we played, so we would have had a great chance at winning the state this year – which makes it very frustrating we couldn’t be a part of it.”
The highlight of Friends’ Central’s sterling campaign occurred on May 18. On a mid-summer-like late afternoon with the temperature reaching 81 degrees, the Phoenix overwhelmed visiting Shipley School, 7-0, to win the Friends Schools League championship for the sixth time overall, third in 10 years, and first since 2013. It also severed Shipley’s five-year stronghold on the FSL title. Since the league’s inaugural season in 1982, only six finals have been captured with a shutout, and FCS has seized their last three (2021, 2013, 2011) in such a fashion.
Friends' Central defeated Shipley on May 18, 2021 to win the Friends Schools League Championship - PSD Photo by James Williamson
As nearby players and coaches embraced, flashed wide smiles, and posed for pictures both sincere and playful, Fitzpatrick was asked if the day could have gone any better.
The pensive right-hander shook his head.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
Fitzpatrick was more than dominant. He was nearly flawless.
In seven innings, Fitzpatrick allowed two harmless singles and a hit batter, with one other base runner aboard after an error led off the game. He struck out multiple batters in each of the final five innings, including whiffing the side in the third and sixth, and finished with an eye-popping and career-high 13.
Sophomore catcher Alejandro “Hondo” Flores, who threw out an attempted base stealer for the first out in the second inning, could only shake his head in amazement.
“It was,” said Flores, “total domination.”
Friends’ Central coach Jon Rubin immediately recognized that Shipley’s potent lineup faced an uphill battle.
Echoing Flores, Rubin said Fitzpatrick’s contribution represented his “most dominant performance” in a Phoenix uniform.
“He is phenomenal,” said Rubin. “He has ben a dominant pitcher since ninth grade. I don’t think he has ever allowed a run against Shipley. You could just see in his disposition the way he was attacking hitters that he was going to be unstoppable today.”
The Phoenix offense, meanwhile, threatened every inning. A booming home run by senior Jack Donahoe leading off the second proved to be the game-winner, but Friends’ Central was just getting started. An RBI single by junior Jon Aman four batters later made it 2-0.
In the fourth, Aman drove in another run, as did junior Sammy Burman (3-for-3, run scored, RBI) with a single and junior Dylan Posencheg with a sacrifice fly to make it 5-0. Yet another RBI by Aman – this time on a double – made it 6-0 in the fifth. A wild pitch in the sixth that plated Burman finished the scoring.
Aman, who went 3-for-3 with a run scored and an RBI, supplied his damage from the nine-hole in the batting order. His predecessor in the eight spot, Flores, was 2-for-4 and reached base three times. Flores’ courtesy runner, sophomore Julian Abreu, scored three runs.
“We are strong top to bottom,” said Rubin. “Literally, this is the deepest and best team we have had. We are rich with talent, and we have talent on the bench. We have pitching. We can go game after game. We’ve played everybody and anybody. We haven’t shied away from any competition. You can’t do that unless you’re deep pitching wise. It’s a wonderfully deep and committed group.
“The bats, we are strong one to nine. Jon Aman had a phenomenal game. There’s no way he’s a nine hitter, but we put him in the nine spot because we have a great leadoff hitter (senior Justin Rubin). It’s like having two straight leadoff hitters.”
When asked about his seamless day at the plate, Aman credited assistant coach Lauren Becker for both his accomplishment and that of the entire team. Becker, wife of Jon Rubin, furnishes the program with weekly mental-skill exercises on an individual, small group, and/or team basis.
Aman provided a case in point when he applied some of Becker’s principles to his own game. Shipley’s leadoff batter hit a line drive to Aman in right field. Though a difficult catch, Aman wasn’t able to make the snare, and he was charged with an error.
Undaunted, Aman dismissed the rugged start and excelled at the plate. He also caught his only other fly ball attempt in the second inning.
“I was first introduced to the mental side of the game freshman year with coach Becker,” said Aman. “I can say that I was definitely skeptical of how important it was, but the more I matured as a person and was open to trying new things mentally, I found myself having more and more success.
“I think having guys around you at all times being all-in to everything that was said also helped as well. It did start to become instinctive. Anytime after we make a mistake in the field or we are frustrated with the way we are swinging, coach Becker has mainly focused on controlling our breath to help us calm down. Just flush away any mistake and do your best to forget about it. The sooner you can forget about failure, the more you will succeed.”
Fitzpatrick also lauded Becker.
“Coach Becker was huge in our success this year, especially me personally,” said Fitzpatrick. “She has, and so have all of our coaches, been teaching our guys the way of being ‘mentally tough’ and fighting through adversity the right way. We have been taught this since seventh grade.
“It is our biggest concern, playing the ‘right way’ and being mentally tough at all times when adversity strikes. Coach Rubin always talks about ‘resilient reaction to failure,’ and that’s what we did this whole season.”
Becker senses when principles are being employed.
“I see them visualizing,” said Becker. “I see them re-setting. They all have a bunch of skills, and they access them when they need to. I watch them and I can see them doing their breath work. I teach it to them, but they have to own the process, and they all do.”
Lest anyone label the Phoenix’s Friends Schools League championship win as perfect, Rubin wouldn’t go quite that far.
“I think we could have mercied them,” said an impish Rubin with a hearty laugh, referring to the 10-run rule that stops a game early. “We’ll take it. We’ll take it. It was a great day, no doubt.”
(Contact John Knebels at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)