By Bill LeConey Staff Writer shorenewstoday.com
GALLOWAY – "Why not us?" That's the playoff mantra of the Egg Harbor Township High School baseball team, according to head coach Bryan Carmichael.
The Eagles answered their own question Monday with a comeback 4-3 win over Cape-Atlantic League rival Absegami in the first round of the South Jersey Group IV playoff tournament. The Eagles used solid pitching, good defense and some very aggressive play on the base paths to register their first playoff win in five years.
Trailing 2-1 going into the seventh inning on the road against one of the top pitchers in the CAL in Matt Ardente, the No. 10 Eagles scratched together three runs, helped by some shaky fielding by the seventh-seeded Braves.
Senior Justin Epifanio started the rally with an infield single and eventually scored the tying run on a suicide squeeze play with J.J. Swentkowski at the plate, as Ardente's pitch sailed high and wide of catcher Steven Hewa.
"We've done a whole lot of that in practice," Epifanio said. "Coach always has us ready for situations like that. To be honest, I had a feeling it was coming. He was using a windup on the mound, so I knew I was going to get a good jump and we ended up getting a pitch over his head, which worked out for us."
Another run scored on an Absegami throwing error, and another on a groundout by Gaby Carino.
Tyler Fischer came on in the bottom of the seventh in relief of starter Brandon Riggs, allowing a two-out RBI single by Franco Ruiz before retiring Matt Branco on a groundout with the hot-hitting Ardente looming in the on-deck circle.
"The attitude was to just come out, have a good time, play as a team and win as a family," said Fischer. "We've been struggling a little bit, but we came out and played a great game."
Riggs, a junior, pitched very well, allowing six hits while striking out four in 6 1/3 innings. He also got plenty of defensive help, as Epifanio had eight assists at shortstop and Carino made a remarkable diving catch in right field to rob Omar Nunez of extra bases.
"We had a good idea of what to expect from Ardente," Carmichael said. "We preach to the kids about putting the ball in play, putting pressure on the defense. Good pitching, defense and quality at-bats - that's what you need to win this time of year."
Christian Barnett had an RBI single for Absegami, and T.J. Neil had a sacrifice fly to give the Braves a 2-1 lead in the fourth. Swentkowski drove in the first EHT run with a bases-loaded single in the first inning.
It's been an up and down season for the Eagles (15-11), with tournament wins over Eastern Regional, the top seed in Group IV, Holy Cross and West Deptford, along with several discouraging losses.
"We're kind of a team that's flown under the radar," Carmichael said. "we don't have a guy like Ardente that we're going to run out there on the mound who can strike a bunch of guys out. we have guys that pitch to contact, like the two guys today.
"We've been telling the kids, 'Why not us? Why can't we do that?' We beat Eastern at their own tournament, we proved that we can compete at this level, we belong here."
But they have not fared well in recent playoff appearances, losing three times in the last four years, including a home loss to Cherokee in a first-round game last year.
"Last year we had a big crowd come out for us and they (Cherokee) spoiled our home playoff game in front of all of our fans," Epifanio said. "And we just figured, 'Hey, why not do the same thing here?'"
There's another one of those questions the Eagles answered with Monday's playoff win. Why not, indeed.
The Eagles will face another tough test in the quarterfinal on Thursday as they travel to second-seeded Toms River North, a 3-2 winner over Shawnee on Monday. But after getting past Ardente, who is headed to Seton Hall on a partial baseball scholarship next fall, the Eagles feel they're ready for just about anything.
"That was huge," Epifanio said. "He's probably the best pitcher we're going to see in the playoffs. That's just a huge win for us and it gives us a lot of momentum going forward."