MICHAEL McGARRY Staff Writer
The Press of Atlantic City
GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Coach Bryan Carmichael of the Egg Harbor Township High School baseball team gave the Eagles a pep talk before they played Absegami in a playoff game Monday.
"I talked to them (Sunday) while we were practicing," Carmichael said, "and I said, 'Why not us? Why can't we do this?' We belong here."
Egg Harbor Township kept that faith even when it was three outs away from defeat.
The Eagles scored three runs in their final at-bat to beat Absegami 4-3 in a South Jersey Group IV first round game. EHT, the No. 10 seed, will play at No. 2 seed Toms River North in the quarterfinals Thursday.
The win gave EHT its first playoff victory in Carmichael's five seasons as coach.
Shortstop Justin Epifanio began the winning rally with an infield single and scored the tying run.
"Our goal was to play with as much heart as we could," Epifanio said. "We never stopped believing in ourselves."
Egg Harbor and Absegami are Cape-Atlantic League American Conference rivals. Monday was the third meeting of the season between the Eagles and seventh-seeded Absegami. The schools had split their first two games with each team winning its home game.
Monday turned into a pitcher's duel between Matt Ardente of Absegami and Brandon Riggs of EHT.
Ardente struck out eight in the first six innings. Riggs finished with four strikeouts in 6.1 innings. He kept Absegami hitters off-balance for the most part with his cutter.
Riggs also benefitted from excellent defense. Epifanio had seven assists at shortstop. Right fielder Gaby Carino made a diving, backhanded catch in the third inning.
Still, EHT trailed 2-1 when it came to bat in the top of the seventh inning.
Epifanio led off with an infield single.
"I just wanted to grind out an at-bat and get on base any way I could," he said.
The Eagles then took advantage of some Absegami miscues. The next two EHT hitters after Epifanio reached on Absegami throwing errors.
After a strikeout, EHT attempted a squeeze play.
Epifanio broke for the plate. The bunt wasn't necessary, however. The pitch was high and sailed to the backstop. Epifanio dove across home plate to tie the game at 2-2.
"I just tried to get a good jump and not think about it too much," Epifanio said.
The Eagles took a 3-2 lead when Nick Pera scored on a throwing error - the Braves' third miscue of the inning. Carino knocked in a run with a groundout to put EHT up 4-2.
"We've been pretty consistent all year defensively," Absegami coach Brian Wastell said. "We imploded a little bit. We got out of sorts, and Egg Harbor Township made us pay for it."
The Braves staged a mini rally of their own in the bottom of the seventh.
Franco Ruiz knocked in a run with a two-out RBI single to cut EHT's lead to 4-3. But Eagles reliever Tyler Fischer threw a curveball to get an Absegami hitter to ground out to Epifanio for the final out.
The batter before the final out Fischer had allowed Ruiz's RBI single.
"I felt a lot of pressure," Fischer said. "But I just focused on the game. I just flushed (the Ruiz hit) and came back and threw the next pitch."
EHT (14-11) has had some big wins the past two seasons. The Eagles qualified for the Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic – which annually features 16 of South Jersey's top teams – last season. They beat Eastern, the top seed in the South Jersey Group IV bracket, this season.
"We're a team that has flown under the radar," Carmichael said.
A playoff run can bring the Eagles even more credibility and attention. Egg Harbor doesn't seem to mind it will be an underdog Thursday.
"We never count ourselves out," Epifanio said.
EHT 100 000 3-4 6 2
Absegami 000 200 1-3 6 4
2B-EHT: Holmes, Carino. AB: Barnett
WP-Riggs (4k) LP-Ardente (9k)
Records-EHT 14-11; Absegami 12-9