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BASEBALL: Father Judge Crusaders . . . Best Baseball Team in the State of Pennsylvania

By John Knebels Photos: Kathy Leister & David Picariello, 06/20/23, 10:15AM EDT


Congratulations to Father Judge, who took home the PIAA 6A State Championship after defeating Mt. Lebanon 4-1 - PSD Photo by Kathy Leister

Photos/Videos: Kathy Leister, John Knebels & David Picariello (FJ Jr. Reporter)

By: John Knebels

STATE COLLEGE, PA – Enveloped by background mountaintops, a genuinely grateful Mike Metzger stood tall in between the dugout and third base line. Behind him, a giant scoreboard in left-center field told the story about what had just occurred.

Father Judge High School, from where Metzger graduated in 1987, had just been officially declared the best high school baseball team in the state of Pennsylvania.

As Metzger spoke, hordes of nearby players celebrated the Crusaders’ 4-1 victory over Mount Lebanon in the PIAA class 6A championship Saturday afternoon at Penn State University. The program’s first-ever state crown punctuated the best season in school history.

Father Judge alum Mike Metzger coached his alma mater to baseball's first-ever state championship - PSD Video by John Knebels:

“It’s not just that we won, it’s how we won,” Metzger said. “We got down. We came back. We kept fighting. It hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m so proud of these guys.”

In their four state contests, the Crusaders outscored their opposition by 15 to 4; it’s the number ‘four’ that can only be described as surreal.

Encompassing 30 innings against some of the best opposition in the state, Father Judge junior pitchers David Rodriquez and Tim Gress surrendered a miserly four runs, 23 hits, and three walks while striking out 21 for a miniscule 1.20 combined earned-run average.

In the final, it was Rodriguez who went the distance, throwing 74 strikes out of 108 pitches. He surrendered six hits and struck out eight – five of them over the final two innings. Nine days earlier, the two-time Philadelphia Catholic League Pitcher of the Year was even better in a 1-0 quarterfinal win over Central Bucks West that lasted nine innings. 

2023 PIAA 6A Championship Highlights: Father Judge vs. Mt. Lebanon - PSD Video by John Knebels & Kathy Leister:

And 12 days before that, Rodriguez surrendered one earned run, five hits, and two walks in the Crusaders’ 3-2 PCL championship win over nemesis La Salle, Father Judge’s first title since 2000.

“David Rodriguez, David Rodriguez,” said Metzger. “They’re the only two words I need. Our pitching is so good. We got a sophomore, Kaiden Laverty. We got Tim Gress. We got David Rodriguez. We know that (the opponent’s) score is not gonna be too high. Eventually, our offense will get there.”

Trailing 1-0 in the fifth, senior Declan Foy led off and worked the most important walk of his life. After a sacrifice bunt by junior Richie Lee, senior Brooks Henderson reached first on an error.

With runners at first and third, senior Anthony Jakeman crushed a gapper that scored Foy with the tying run and a flying Henderson with the lead run.

It was unreal,” said Jakeman. “I knew I was getting a fastball there. I just wanted to do damage. I got my fastball and I did damage. I was nuts. I couldn’t even think straight.”

As soon as he saw the ball split the gap, Henderson considered only one destination.

“I knew it was getting down,” said Henderson. “I booked it. I ran as fast as I could. I knew I had to get home. I had to. I mean, what a swing. That ball was mashed.

“I just knew we had to take it to the (Mount Lebanon left-handed pitcher and University of Miami commit reclassified junior David Shields) kid. He’s a really good pitcher. We knew he was gonna throw hard. We knew he was gonna stay in the strike zone. I just tried to attack early, get my pitch, and help out my guys.”

In his final two high school games, the leadoff shortstop went 6-for-8 with four runs scored. In the PCL win, he knocked in one of the three runs.

Father Judge is crowned state champions. See PSD video by john knebels as the Crusaders receive their state championship medals & trophy:

Junior pitcher David Rodriguez added to his already incredible resume by pitching a complete game victory in state Championship - PSD Video by John Knebels:

Can you say “clutch”?

“I have no words,” Henderson said.

Afforded a 2-1 lead, Rodriguez seemed to become stronger. Benefited by a tremendous play in the hole by senior second baseman Nick Shiffler, Rodriguez retired the side in the fifth. Facing Mount Lebanon’s two-three-four hitters in the sixth, Rodriguez struck out the side.

In the top of the seventh, Henderson stroked a one-out single. One out later, Shiffler walked. Senior Sean Moore then roped a single that scored Henderson with the all-important insurance run. After Shiffler dashed home on a wild pitch to make it 4-1, and with Rodriguez still with at least 19 pitches remaining of the rule-allotted 105, the game appeared pretty much over.

“I know with him once we get ahead in the game, he’s the best in the state,” Jakeman said. “It’s not even close. When we get a lead with him, it’s done. It’s over with.”

Almost speechless senior leader Brooks Henderson reached base all four at-bats & scored 2 runs - PSD Video by John Knebels:

Anthony Jakeman's two-run double in the 5th inning ended up being the game-winning hit - PSD Video by John KNebels:

The District 7-champion Blue Devils, however, wouldn’t go quietly.

In the bottom of the seventh, two singles started a potential rally. Following two strikeouts, another single loaded the bases. On a 2-1 fastball, Blue Devil leadoff hitter Tanner Donati lined a drive toward centerfield. With an audible anticipation filling the stadium, Lee reached up and snared the final out of the season.

Let the historic celebration begin.

“Definitely the scariest ball of my life,” Lee said.

Asked later, the players and Metzger said they had zero doubt that Lee would make the catch. After all, Lee is one third of the starting outfield that has earned the nickname “No Fly Zone” for their defensive excellence.

To end the fifth inning, senior leftfielder Jaden DeLuca made a fine running catch in foul ground. With one out in the fourth, senior rightfielder Liam Newhouse contributed a highlight-reel, fully extended diving catch.

“I read ‘dive’ all the way,” Newhouse said. “It was kind of a ball that just floated and stayed level to the ground. I knew it was staying up, so I just laid out and tried to make a play, and it happened.”

Of Mount Lebanon’s 21 outs, six were fly outs.

“No ball gets down out there,” said Rodriguez. “They track every ball down, and every time a ball goes in the air, I know they’re going to catch it. Just like the last play. As soon as that went up  I knew Richie was going to catch it, and I knew we were going to get our celebration on.”

While the Crusaders’ tournament offense led by Henderson (.467 average, 4 runs scored), Shiffler (.571, 4 runs, 4 RBI, 2 homers), Moore (.429, 2 RBI), senior designated hitter Ryan Biener (.385), and Lee (.455) did enough to win, it was pitching that made the difference.

They call (L-R) Jaden DeLuca, Richie Lee & Liam Newhouse the "No Fly Zone" because of their lights-out defense - PSD Video by John Knebels:

Father Judge's "No Fly Zone" - Photo by David Picariello

In the 6-2, first-round victory over Plymouth-Whitemarsh, Gress threw a complete game six-hitter with six strikeouts. In the 4-1 triumph over North Penn in the semifinals, Gress allowed one run, six hits, and one walk.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Gress said, “that my abilities helped the team out and let Dave and the other guys have an opportunity to bring a state championship to Father Judge.”

Gress’ humility is a trait shared by Rodriguez.

Despite all of the many plaudits during his career, Rodriguez always talks about his teammates. He wants to be in that moment. He trusts his skills. The 6-foot-2, 235-pounder has no qualms about hoisting the Crusaders on his strong shoulders.

Amazing,” said Rodriguez, who nearly sprained his ankle on the second out of the first inning and ended the second inning by snaring a line shot ticketed for the outfield. “State champs. Made history for Judge. Nothing else to be said. It’s unbelievable. There is no description.

“Coming up here, we were all saying that everything feels like a dream. Passing through the woods and seeing all the trees, the townhouses, and everything. It felt like a dream, but now it’s a dream come true. “

Henderson explained what made the Crusaders one of the greatest teams to ever represent the esteemed Philadelphia Catholic League.

“We’re all best friends,” he said. “That’s the best way I can put it. So much love on this team. So much chemistry. You can’t beat a team like that. We just knew that if we stayed together, nobody could beat us.

“The amount of support we had was just unreal. I feel like every game we had, there were more fans, more people coming out, more people showing appreciation. I have like 45 text messages on my phone right now. I don’t know who they’re from.

“It’s just unbelievable.”

Believe it.


(Contact John Knebels at or on Twitter @johnknebels.)