East falls to Bishop Eustace in extra innings

Ross Peterzell ('14)/ Eastside Staff

Five home runs scattered over the outfield fence onto Route 70 on Thursday as the Cherry Hill East Cougars (16-9) and Bishop Eustace Crusaders (23-1) faced off in the Cougars’ last regular season game.

Nick Ciocco (’14) smacked the first pitch of the game to left-center field for a triple. Nick DiEva (’14) also had a shot to left which provided an early cushion as the Cougars went up 2-0 before they even took the field.

Going up against South Jersey’s No.1 ranked baseball team, the Cougars needed to continue to bear their momentum after winning five consecutive games, the longest streak of the regular season.

The Cougars inconsistency at the plate earlier on in the season haunted them after falling to Seneca, Millville and division rivals Cherokee and Washington Township all in a span of seven days.

But in a game as special as yesterday’s, in which Cherry Hill East’s baseball team could prove its emergence as one of South Jersey’s top teams, Ciocco said “We needed to swing the bats the way we know how and minimize the long ball from Eustace.”

DiEva did just that, shutting the Crusaders down for the entire first go-around in their power-heavy lineup. With playoffs coming near, DiEva was capped at 50 pitches, which got him through three scoreless innings.

Jordan Lee (’14) also had a solo home run over the short right field fence to tack on the Cougars’ third run. The Cougars acquired a cool 6-0 lead after being at the plate in the fourth inning.

When DiEva was shut down after three, it was on to the bullpen. Shane Haar (’14), Brett Tafaro (’15) and Matt Mozzillo (’15) battled with the SJ Baseball Giants, piercing the outfield with sharp line drives.

The Crusaders tightened the game to a three-run deficit after putting up five runs between the fourth and fifth.

Brent Collins (’15), who entered the game in the clean-up spot  for DiEva, stepped up and hit a triple to the deepest part of the outfield in the top of the sixth, later scoring.

The Cougars were in good shape going into the bottom of the sixth with a five-run lead, but Eustace’s powerhouse line-up had other plans in mind. The Crusader’s leadoff hitter Chris Jones (’15), found the same short porch in right that Lee had previously.

With batters finding any way possible on base, Eustace’s five-hole hitter, Justin Hagenman (’15), came up with two runners on base, punishing a ball over the left-center field wall, propelling the Crusaders one run ahead of the Cougars, making the score 11-10.

With the Diamond Classic and state playoffs on their plates, Eustace had been reserving its pitching for the upcoming competitions. Head Coach Sam Tropiano did not throw any one of his three pitching aces in the first six innings.

But while all the lights were on the Cougars’ rally in the sixth inning, Florida Gulf Coast University commit and high-potential MLB draft recruit Devin Smeltzer (’14) was privately warming up in the bullpen.

Entering the top of the seventh inning, down one run in a game where 21 runs had been scored, the Crusaders put their number-one pitcher in to slam the door in a thriller of a baseball game. With ease and confidence, Smeltzer struck out the first two batters he faced and Ciocco came to the plate, looking potentially at his last at bat of a high school regular season game straight in the face.

After being named to the First-Team All Conference the night prior, along with Jon Hansen (’15), Mike Brambilla (’14), Mike Pierce (’14) and Nick DiEva (’14), Ciocco “had been waiting for a chance to face Smeltz all year,” he said.

Ciocco made the best of his opportunity. On an 0-1 pitch, Ciocco took Smeltzer’s MLB caliber curveball for a ride deep to right center, clearing the wall. And just when everyone thought it was over, the game was now tied at 11 entering the bottom of the seventh.

Jordan Friedman (’14) retired six straight batters between the seventh and eighth inning, repeatedly feeding the Cougars with more chances to go ahead and end the game.

Facing his childhood little league teammates, Shawn Roche (’14) got the ball for Eustace in the eighth inning.

“It added to the pressure I was already feeling,” Roche said.

The Cougars managed to get two runners on in theeighth after Andrew Cohen (’14) fired a line drive single in between third base and shortstop. With an open base at first, Ciocco was intentionally walked. Roche pitched his way out of the jam and got his team another chance to face Friedman.

Following a quick bottom eighth and top of the ninth, all pressure was on the Crusaders, who had the chance to end the game then and there. After acquiring one out in the inning, Bishop Eustace put two runners on base, creating havoc for the visiting Cougars.

After a devastating series of events involving obstructing throwing paths and overthrows, the twelfth and final run for the Crusaders crossed home plate with two outs in the ninth.

The Cougars collected 12 hits, three of which belonged to Ciocco, who fell only a double short of the cycle.

Ciocco looks back at this game “wishing the outcome could’ve been different, but we played hard and it may certainly be the most memorable game of my high school career,” he said.