Call Holy Spirit the little Catholic school that could.
Having weathered flurry after flurry from a bevy of statewide baseball giants, the Spartans stood tall on Bob DeMeo Field in Hamilton, hoisting the school’s second NJSIAA Non-Public B championship, appropriately in the school’s 100th year in existence.
Senior David Hagaman (6-3) took the ball in his final high school game — one year after his junior season was stolen from him by a pandemic — and limited Morristown Beard to one run on three hits, struck out eight and walked one to guide Holy Spirit (19-9) to a 7-1 victory and the NJSIAA Non-Public B championship.
Holy Spirit stood at 7-6 on May 8 and rolled off 11 wins in its final 14 games. It would be hard to argue that the Spartans’ rugged schedule hadn’t turned heavy metal into red hot iron. The meaty portion of Holy Spirit’s schedule contained the likes of Mainland (twice), Don Bosco Prep, Pope John, St. Augustine, Clearview, Ocean City, Gloucester Catholic and St. Mary (Ruth.). All but St. Mary spent significant time in the NJ.com Top 20. Holy Spirit went 2-7 against that deep well of talent.
“Once we got in the postseason we started playing really well and it felt like we’d be tough to beat,” said Hagaman.
It looked that way early-on Wednesday at Veteran’s Park because Hagaman’s teammates came out swinging, striking for two runs in the first inning and another run in the third to stake the 6-4, 200-pound righthander bound for West Virginia a 3-0 cushion that looked more cozy by the inning.
Hagaman, in fact, did not allow a hit until Morristown Beard’s No. 7 hitter, Miles Varbero led off the bottom of the fifth inning with a clean single to right field. Hagaman, however, went on the attack, taking just 11 pitches to get the next three batters out and end any thought of a threat. Varbero reached second base on a passed ball with one out.
Shane Solari, Holy Spirit’s No. 5 hitter, ripped a pair of clutch two-out hits that brought home two of his team’s first three runs. Solari singled sharply to left to score Jayden Shertel and boost the Spartans’ lead to 2-0 in the first. He then laced a single into left-center field in the third to score Trevor Cohen for a 3-0 lead. Cohen had led off the inning with a ringing double to the base of the center field wall.
“The hit in the first inning was a huge confidence boost,” said Solari. “I was attacking fastballs and trying to make the pitcher pay for throwing them. Since the playoffs started I’ve been aggressive on fastballs, really attacking them.”
Holy Spirit coach Steve Normane, who would get a thorough Gatorade soaking in the post-game celebration, enjoyed his view of Solari’s bat from the dugout.
“Shane is our heart and soul,” said Normane. “I’m proud of Shane that he came up in big spots and delivered like he did.”
Holy Spirit’s imposing leadoff hitter C.J. Egrie started the rally in the first by rocking a hard single to center field on Michael DeSantis’ third pitch of the game. Egrie stole second and moved to third on Cohen’s comebacker. Egrie would score on a wild pitch with Shertel at the plate. Then Shertel drew a walk and stole second to set up Solari.
Solari played the discerning one in the top of the fifth when he drew a leadoff walk on a 3-2 pitch from reliever Michael Sciarra. And he’d get on his horse right away when Steven Petrosh jumped on an 0-1 pitch and rode it into left-center field for an RBI double and a 4-0 lead.
Hagaman, meanwhile, was carrying a no-hitter into the bottom of the inning having thrown just 55 pitches in four innings while striking out eight, walking none and hitting a pair of batters. He was showing no signs of faltering.
“I was aware of the no-hitter,” said Hagaman. “The hit kind of made it easier and allowed me to restart from there.”
The Holy Spirit bats did not let up and, perhaps, took advantage of a bit of misfortune for Morristown Beard. Cohen hit a hard liner back to the box with one out and two on in the fourth and DeSantis could not get his glove up in time. The ball caught the back of his pitching hand, just above the thumb.
“He was trying to talk us into letting him continue, but his hand swelled up right away,” said Morristown Beard coach John Sheppard.
Holy Spirit tacked on three more runs in the sixth and this time the rally began at the bottom of the order. Trevor Smith, the Spartans’ No. 9 hitter, was already 2-for-2 with a pair of singles when he drew a leadoff walk. Then Egrie walked and Shertel drew an intentional walk with one out. Holy Spirit suddenly had the bases loaded without making a bit of noise.
Cleanup hitter Ryan Spina changed the sound of the inning when he singled into right-center to score Smith and Egrie. Shertel alertly kept churning from first and around third base when the relay was misplayed. Holy Spirit had boosted its lead to 7-0 just six outs from a championship.
“There’s not too many games we are down,” said Hagaman. “It seems our bats always get a lead for us.”
Morristown Beard did start to barrel the ball up against Hagaman starting with the last two out of the fifth, which were hard shots to left field that Solari chased down. Hagaman would get through the sixth with a comfortable lead intact but not without some consternation.
Morristown Beard’s Matt Stokes led off and lined out hard to Petrosh at shortstop. Three hitter Jordan Greenaway, at the very least, gave himself a state final memory he’ll never forget. Greenaway jumped on Hagaman’s first-pitch fastball and drove it over the left field wall for a home run that slammed noisily off the trunk of a tree.
Jeremy Lebovitz followed with a single through the middle and Jackson Scully drew a walk. Suddenly, Holy Spirit’s big sixth inning loomed even larger. But Hagaman bore down to get the next two batters to close out his 90-pitch, six-inning gem.
Shertel pitched a 1-2-3 seventh to secure the championship.
“It was David’s turn in the rotation, plus we thought this matchup was right for him,” said Normane. Both Hagaman and Shertel were available to start, so some thought Shertel would get the nod. Hagaman, however, proved very worthy of his coach’s confidence.
“C.J. started things with that laser in the first and David settled in right away,” said Normane. “It was big for us to get that lead in the first inning.”
Losing is never easy, but it’s always very difficult to be on the short end of a state championship game.
“Hey, there’s 12 teams still playing in the state and there’s 300 or so high schools,” said Sheppard. “There are a lot of teams that wish they were in our spot. I’m proud of the way our kids fought back.”
Normane, a 2003 Rutgers grad, coached Holy Spirit to its only other state championship in 2015 when he steered the Spartans over Newark Academy in the Non-Public B final. Normane is a Livingston High School grad and played at the Essex County school for coach John Schmitt. Newark Academy, coincidentally, is in Livingston. There was another Livingston connection for Normane at Bob DeMeo Field on Wednesday. Morristown Beard assistant Scott Schroeder is a Livingston grad and a former coach of the Lancers. Schroeder played for Schmitt as well.
“I didn’t get to play in games like this for Livingston,” said Normane, “but they’re a big Group 4 school and we played in a great conference (Iron Hills). I learned the game from guys like John Schmitt at Livingston and coach (Fred) Hill at Rutgers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard myself saying things coach Hill said. It’s unbelievable.”
Now Normane can say he and Holy Spirit are two-time NJSIAA state champs.
NOTES: It was the third NP-B state final for Morristown Beard. It also lost in the 2005 final to St. Rose of Belmar and in 2010 to Gloucester Catholic. … Normane took the reins at Holy Spirit in 2014 before stepping down after the 2017 season to take the school’s athletic director position. He also stepped in to coach the school’s softball team in 2018 and ‘19 before returning before the would-be 2020 season to the baseball dugout.
Solari also made a fine running catch in left field on a shot off the bat of Nico DiGrazio leading off the bottom of the first inning. … Petrosh dove forward to snare a low liner to short by DeSantis in the fourth. … Morristown Beard’s shortstop Stokes made a terrific play on a slow roller off the bat of Vince Spina in the second.