Photos/Videos: Brendan Baldwin, John Knebels, Jahmir Dunbar, Zack Beavers, Kathy Leister, Tommy Muir & Lennie Malmgren
By: John Knebels
PHILADELPHIA – When the prognosticators handed in their forecast back in March, none of them could have predicted what would occur.
That’s what makes sports so much fun.
After 12 regular-season games filled with upsets galore, a pre-playoff round, and a riveting quarterfinal, Philadelphia Catholic League baseball has cemented its Final Four.
Top-seed Father Judge will meet six-seed Roman Catholic 4 PM Wednesday at La Salle High School. Simultaneously, two-seed La Salle will take on five-seed Neumann-Goretti at Bonner-Prendergast. The winners will meet for the PCL title 11 AM Saturday at Neumann University.
While Judge and La Salle were not surprise semifinalists, the same could not be said for Neumann-Goretti and Roman Catholic.
Playing on May 21 after a one-day postponement courtesy of an early, heavy rainstorm, visiting Neumann-Goretti startled four-seed Archbishop Wood, 10-3. The Saints scored two runs in the first, four in the third, and two more in both the sixth and seventh. They reached base 21 times, 12 via hits.
“We preached grinding out every single pitch,” said N-G coach Nick Nardini. “Each and every pitch is its own event.”
Along with key contributions from senior Yariel Rodriguez (2-for-3, 2 runs scored, RBI), junior Christian Cerone (2-4, RS, 2 RBI), freshman Richie Cray (2-5, 3 RBI), and junior Jimmy Gallo (reached base four times, scored two runs), junior Andrew “Dank” Dankanich slugged four singles, scored three runs, and stole three bases – the last of which was thieving home in the seventh to go up 10-1.
Junior pitcher Jayce Park surrendered only one run despite five hits and five walks while striking out seven over five innings. When he needed to make a big pitch, he did so, as the Vikings left nine runners on base during Park’s outing.
After a spirited celebration, both players downplayed their own performances.
“We haven’t won here in 11 years, or won against them period in six years, so it’s a huge team win,” said Dankanich. “Our approach was to get on base as many time as we could get on.”
Park appreciated the Saints’ offense.
“I didn’t have my best stuff,” said Park. “I knew I had to battle through it. I knew I didn’t have to go for strikeouts. I knew the defense had my back. I knew they would hit for me.”
Midway through the season, it appeared unlikely that Neumann-Goretti would survive this late in the season.
The Saints lost four out of seven, the last of which was a bitter 5-3, eight-inning loss against La Salle.
But the Saints, who last won the PCL title in 2017, defeated Roman Catholic and Archbishop Carroll to finish among the top six and avoid a first-round contest. Then they played their best game of the season against a favored opponent.
“It’s not always the best team that wins,” said Nardini, “but sometimes it’s the hottest teams. We had some tough losses early on. We told them that we have to believe in each other.”
An even more monumental upset took place the day before. Behind a three-run rally in the fourth inning that erased a 3-1 deficit, visiting six-seed Roman Catholic stunned three-seed and defending PCL champion Bonner-Prendergast, 5-3.
“We knew it was gonna be a hard fought game from the beginning, but I think we felt very prepared as a team,” said Roman senior Myles McNiff. “It’s definitely gonna be one of my most memorable wins.”
For good reason.
Before finishing the game on the mound for a strong two-inning save, McNiff went 2-for-3 at the plate, scoring once and knocking in one more. In the sixth inning, McNiff took over for senior pitcher Tommy Flaherty, who allowed five hits and two earned runs. With the bat, Flaherty went 3-for-3 with an RBI.
“Another come-from-behind victory against Bonner,” said Flaherty, referring to a 2-1 win over the Friars back on April 13, part of a midseason, four-game winning streak by the Cahillites. “We never really got down on ourselves; just kept battling.”
Roman Catholic does not mind the underdog moniker. They have gotten used to the doubters, who rolled their collective eyebrows after the Cahillites dropped their last two regular-season games.
By knocking off the defending champs, now the doubters aren’t so sure.
“Even kids in our own school count us out,” said senior Nate Bryant. “That just makes us more and more pumped up to want to go out and get a win. We have to prove our last win wasn’t a fluke. The more other people chirp, the more we get motivated and settle in, and we feed off of the negativity and want to prove those people wrong.
Roman Catholic junior Santino Harwood #12 - PSD Photo by Tommy Muir
“Against Bonner-Prendergast, the bench was electric, the defense had our pitchers back the whole way through, and the offense showed up when needed. We shut them down at the right time and got hot when they were down. Huge performance from Flaherty and McNiff; no one worked harder than them.”
Added junior Santino Harwood:
“It’s a great team win when people are down and everybody else does their jobs and picks them right back up. Definition of team success right there.”
For the Cahillites to ultimately capture their first PCL title since 1992, they will have to maneuver past Father Judge. The top-seed Crusaders came one win shy of a perfect regular season, losing to La Salle in the finale.
Despite the late blemish, lights-out pitching and timely hitting have provided Judge with arguably its best season since 2000, which coincided with the school’s last PCL title.
That stratagem was in full force in Father Judge’s 10-0, five-inning quarterfinal shutout over visiting nine-seed St. Joseph’s Prep.
The Crusaders scored in each of their four innings, including three in the first and four in the second. With junior two-time PCL Pitcher of the Year David Rodriguez in total command (five innings, four hits, no walks, three strikeouts, 42 strikes in 61 pitches) and a balanced offense led by seniors Nick Shiffler and Sean Moore (two RBI each) along with senior Declan Foy (2-for-3, two runs scored, RBI), Father Judge was as dominant as ever.
Father Judge coach Mike Metzger, however, reminded his troops that much work remains.
Father Judge junior pitcher David Rodriguez #24 - PSD Photo by Lennie Malmgren
“The PCL is stacked,” said Metzger. “Anybody can win it. We’re just happy to be one of the four remaining.”
Arguably the PCL’s hottest team, La Salle overwhelmed visiting seven-seed Cardinal O’Hara, 6-0. Pitching by senior Tristan Helmick and hitting by senior Nathan Kress proved too much for a much-improved O’Hara squad that only won two games last year.
After a highly uncharacteristic 4-3 start as of April 19, the Explorers – PCL champs three of the past four seasons – won their last five regular-season contests, including a 7-2 victory over previously undefeated Father Judge.
“We are a really talented team, and throughout the year we’ve all come together as one unit,” said Kress. “Our chemistry has come a long way, and I’m glad it’s happening at the right time.
“There were tough conditions to start the (quarterfinal) game with the rain and everything, but I felt that the guy’s spirits weren’t effected by it in the slightest. We got to the field as a team early, which got us ready to come out and play our best game.”
La Salle senior Nathan Kress #26 - PSD Photo by Kathy Leister
In what turned out to significantly influence the final standings, visiting La Salle defeated Bonner-Prendergast, 8-4, on May 8. Senior Tristan Helmick maintained an early 6-0 lead - aided by senior Tim Schuler (4-for-4, 2 runs scored, RBI) and senior Nate Kress (three-run homer in first inning) - until the Friars closed to within 6-4 in the sixth, but a pair of late runs by La Salle clinched the victory.
Each of the non-postseason squads enjoyed their share of highlights. After a winless 0-12 campaign in 2022, Archbishop Ryan finished 4-8 and, thanks to winning its last two regular-season games, advanced to the postseason as an eight seed. The Raiders then dropped a first-round decision to visiting St. Joseph’s Prep, 4-2 . . . As for the Prep, also 4-8, victories over Roman Catholic and Archbishop Carroll paved the way for a playoff spot and subsequent first-round win . . .
Before losing to Cardinal O’Hara, 7-1, in the first round, 10-seed Archbishop Carroll – also 4-8 – had upended the Lions, 11-10, earlier . . . Eleventh-place Conwell-Egan was yet another 4-8 contender but lost out in tiebreakers. However, by winning three of its last seven after a 1-4 start, the Eagles improved from last year’s 1-11 finish . . . Lansdale Catholic finished in 12th place with a 3-9 record . . . Though in last place at 1-11, Devon Prep lost four games by one run, with three of those against playoff teams Archbishop Wood (four seed), Neumann-Goretti (five seed), and top-seed Father Judge.
Tag(s): Home Schools Philadelphia Catholic Baseball Arch. Carroll Baseball Arch. Ryan Baseball Arch. Wood Baseball Bonner & Prendie Baseball Cardinal O'Hara Baseball Conwell-Egan Baseball Father Judge Baseball La Salle Baseball Lansdale Cath. Baseball Roman Catholic Baseball Saint Joseph's Prep Baseball Neumann/Goretti Baseball West Catholic Baseball Devon Prep