Hard’s arm, Garcia’s bat prove too much even for St. Augustine

By Bob Behre | June 18, 2021

It has been no secret that Non-Public A is the most rugged, unforgiving and deeply talented group in the NJSIAA tournament year-after-year.

So, while delighted, no one was surprised when St. Joseph (27-2) of Montvale and St. Augustine Prep (23-7) supplied the throng at Hamilton’s Veterans Park with yet another Non-Public A state final gem on Wednesday night.

Righthander Sean Hard provided the heat and Ellis Garcia the thunder as St. Joseph prevailed, 4-1, to secure the Green Knights’ fourth Non-Public A state championship and first since 2004. St. Augustine, which reached the NP-A state final for a fifth straight year, was chasing its third state title.

Hard scattered six hits, struck out 12, walked three and hit a batter over 6.1 innings. Garcia, St. Joe’s leadoff hitter, blasted a two-run home run to give his team a 3-0 lead in the fourth inning and tacked on a sac fly in the sixth to extend the advantage to 4-1.

“This is such a great moment, honestly,” said Hand in the throes of a wild post-game celebration complemented nicely by the rabid Green Knights following. “We’ve been talking about doing this since seventh grade.”

Hard’s stuff has been extremely difficult to solve all season but if one team could figure out that riddle, some thought it could be the mighty South Jersey power St. Augustine. Meanwhile, there was the concern of how to contain a Green Knights offense that entered the game having outscored its first three state tournament opponents 35-2. St. Joseph hammered defending champ Delbarton, 17-2, in the North Jersey NP-A sectional final.

Though Hermits starter Jackson Vanesko battled to command his fastball for three innings, he and the team’s bullpen did a yeoman’s job of keeping the Atlantic County school in the game. St. Augustine, in fact, would get the tying run on base in the sixth inning and bring the tying run to the plate in the top of the seventh.

Hard was extremely sharp through four innings, permitting a two-out double to Vanesko in the second and a leadoff single to Jack Peacock in the third. But Hard simply picked Vanesko’s courtesy runner and Peacock off second base with a pair of beautiful timing plays with his shortstop Garcia, quickly and stunningly extricating himself from further danger.

“My fastball was working well enough,” said Hard. “My curveball got some outs and I threw some good sliders, too.” Hard’s fastball was very hard and up in the top of the first when he struck out the Hermits in order on just 11 pitches. He picked up single strikeouts in the second and third on curveballs before leaning back on the fastball in the fourth to, again, fan the Hermits in order.

St. Joseph (Mont.) poses for the photo it had hoped to pose for all season, the one with the Non-Public A championship trophy.

It was Hard who triggered St. Joseph’s first rally in the third when he led off with a double to right field. Hard stole third as Jimmy Romano struck out, just beating the throw. He would eventually score on Vanesko’s second walk of the inning, and sixth in the game. Angel Colon drew the base-on-balls that put St. Joseph in front, 1-0.

Vanesko could have been out of the inning clean but Albert Seranno’s high pop-up to the right side fell between two infielders as Hard held third. Vanesko struck out the dangerous Nick Martinez for what should have been the third out before walking Derek Benzinger and Colon to force home the unearned run.

The 6-4, 200-pound lefthanded Vanesko, who had already walked six batters and thrown 82 pitches through three innings, didn’t last long in the fourth.

St. Joe’s No. 9 hitter Jeremy Acosta (2-for-2, walk, 2 runs) led off and hit a bouncer over third base, hustling it into a double. Up stepped Garcia, who worked the count to 3-1.

“I was looking fastball,” said Garcia. “His fastball was up all game.”

Garcia got what he was looking for and hammered it high and toward the fence in straightaway left field. “I thought it was gone,” he said. Garcia’s judgment was true and the two-run home run staked the Green Knights to a 3-0 lead.

Cieslak second-guessed himself during Garcia’s at bat.

“When the count went 2-1 on Ellis with the runner on second, we had the bunt on,” said Cieslak. “But at 3-1 we took it off and he hits a home run.”

That was it for Vanesko, who permitted three runs, two of which were earned, on three hits, struck out seven but walked six in an adventurous 93 pitches. Good news followed for the Hermits, though, as righty reliever Marco Levari settled things down and gave his teammates a chance to rally.

Hard (8-0), who had given up just one earned run all season, got the first two batters in the fifth but, suddenly, lost the plate. He walked Peacock, hit Cole Frye with a pitch and walked Josiah Ragsdale to load the bases to put the tying run aboard.

“I think I had a little adrenaline rush at that point,” said Hard, perhaps sensing how close his team was to a championship. And his fastball suffered. But he survived the threat when leadoff batter Ryan Taylor’s laser to right field was right at Benzinger and St. Augustine’s biggest opportunity died in his glove.

The Hermits threatened again in the sixth when Austin Sofran led off and easily beat out a slow roller to the third base side before Kyle Neri reached on an infield single with two outs. Vanesko (2-for-3, RBI) followed with a single to right field that chased Sofran home with the Hermits’ first run.

Early action in the NJSIAA Non-Public A state championship game pitting St. Joseph (Mont.) and St. Augustine Prep.

Hard reasserted himself, however, and struck out Peacock on a 2-2 fastball to stem the tide and keep the lead at 3-1. The good news for St. Augustine was that Hard had thrown 27 pitches in the fifth and 22 in the sixth to raise his pitch count to 100, leaving him just 10 pitches shy of the 110-pitch.

Acosta was at it again in the bottom of the sixth when he singled to left field with one out and stole second with Garcia at the plate. Acosta then took off for third, but it appeared a good throw may get him. The throw, however, was wide and Acosta was safe.

Garcia worked the count to 2-2, then fouled off two pitches. He then lifted the seventh pitch from Levari to medium right field and Acosta raced home just ahead of the throw. The 4-1 lead now loomed large even with Hard short on the pitch limit.

Bryce Oliver led off the seventh for St. Augustine with a pinch single to center. Hard then struck out Ragsdale for the first out but that was it for him. But Romano came in and closed it out. He got Taylor to pop out and, after Sofran (2-for-4) singled to bring up the tying run, struck out the next batter looking at a nasty curveball to ignite the celebration.

“Jimmy was lights out in the Bergen County Tournament and a state game for us, so we felt pretty good there,” said Garcia.

St. Joseph coach Mark Cieslak said he initially wanted to take Hard out after the sixth and turn the seventh over to Romano.

“Sean was at 100 pitches but he wasn’t laboring,” said Cieslak. “He’s a tough kid and said, ‘Don’t think about taking me out.’ He deserved the chance to finish it.”

St. Augustine was not the favorite in this one but actually out-hit the potent St. Joseph lineup 7-5. It also prevented the big inning to keep itself in the game.

“The plan is to get here,” said St. Augustine coach Mike Bylone before the game, “but the goal is to win.”

The Hermits didn’t win but showed the team that boasts victories this season over Gloucester Catholic, Jackson, Old Bridge, Kingsway, Paul VI and Red Bank Catholic is one tough out. St. Augustine was also 12-0 in what was a deeper-than-ever Cape Atlantic League.

NOTES: St. Joseph (Mont.) pulled off the same rare and impressive trifecta its 1998 team accomplished in winning the Bergen County Tournament, the North Jersey, Non-Public A sectional and the state championship. The 1998 Green Knights under legendary Frank Salvano (630-184, .774) finished No. 1 in The Star-Ledger Top 20.

It was the seventh state final for both schools. St. Joseph won state championships in 1993, ‘98, 2004  and ‘21 and fell in the 1974, ‘99 and 2014 finals. … St. Augustine won championships in 2011 and ‘18. It lost in the 1971 (Parochial C), 2016, ‘17, ‘19 and ‘21 finals.

Vanesko is headed to Bryant University. … The Green Knights’ and Hermits’ fans each did an excellent job traveling the great distances from Bergen and Atlantic counties to Hamilton in Mercer.

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