GLOUCESTER TWP. - Dylan Maria’s titanic home run really got the ball rolling.
Nick Yoder painted the corners over the final three innings, sending five hitters back to the dugout looking at strike three. A sixth swung but came up empty.
On this day, hugs were plentiful and kissing a trophy never felt better.
D.J. Gore’s biggest Gatorade bath capped an afternoon the Highland High School baseball program won’t soon forget. The Tartans scored five runs in the bottom of the first inning Friday and went on for a 6-4 victory over Deptford to capture the South Jersey Group 3 title.
The crown is the first for the Tartans (19-6) in better than 40 years. It quickly erased any lingering feelings from last season’s loss to Ocean City in the same game and moved them into Tuesday’s state semifinal against Central Jersey champion Allentown at Rowan College at Gloucester County.
Allentown defeated Neptune 4-3 in 10 innings.
“Seeing Ocean City dog pile on its home field really hit hard, especially when you were best friends with all of the seniors and knew it was their last game,” said winning pitcher Anthony Masselli, one of this year’s senior leaders. “This year I had to take on that role and try to get back here with this squad.”
“I’m just excited for our kids and what they did,” said Gore, whose team earned the No. 2 seed and played all four of its sectional games at home. “We’re going to enjoy this for a while.”
The tone was firmly established in the first frame.
Highland’s first six batters reached base, with Jon Markulics scoring on an error and Maria belting a three-run shot to left field. Jared Colbert would score on a double steal and Uncle Mo found a seat in the Tartans’ crowded dugout.
“(Against Lacey in the semifinals) I was 0-for-2 and didn’t do too much for the team,” Maria said. “I was thinking about having a better impact on the game and just putting my best swing on every pitch.
“It felt great off the bat and I knew the wind was going to carry it. … I put my best swing on it. It felt like heaven.”
The No. 4 seed, Deptford (17-7) made three errors and gave up three hits as Highland sent nine batters to the plate.
“We felt we played very good baseball for six innings,” Deptford coach Anthony Leone said. “If we could erase the first one, we would.
“The balls were bouncing around and they were able to take advantage of it like any good team would.”
A team that lived on the edge throughout the playoffs, with all three of its wins coming by one run, Deptford didn’t simply fade away. The Spartans cut their deficit to 5-2 on Shane Kelly’s two-run homer in the third and made it 5-3 on Mike Paciocco’s RBI single in the fourth.
But in the fifth, Yoder took to the hill. Of the next six outs, five would come via strikeout – all looking.
“I knew I had to throw strikes and count on my defense behind me,” he said. “When I come in from the bullpen, I just want to throw ground balls.
“My fastball is my best pitch. If it’s working, I’m staying with it. I was hitting the corners with it.”
Said Gore: “We were in the same scenario last week against Cherry Hill West and he did the same exact thing. He was probably a little better today. He shut the door.
“He’s someone who not a lot of people know about, but he’s a four-year starter for us. … He’s the reason we’re South Jersey champs right now. We don’t beat Cherry Hill West without him and we certainly don’t win today without him.”
Highland added a run in the bottom of the fifth and the Spartans would also add a run in the seventh. But the championship dog pile ensued as the game ended on a 6-5-2-6 rundown after a runner strayed too far off third base.
“We knew coming into the year that we’d lean on our senior pitching,” Gore said. “It was just a matter of our younger guys coming around. It was really a group of young guys who needed to bond and play together.”
“We were hungry from last year,” Maria said. “It was our No. 1 goal from Day One. It just feels great to get this win.”
Highland 6, Deptford 4
Spartans 002 – 100 – 1 – 4-9-4
Tartans 500 – 010 – x – 6-10-3
WP: Anthony Masselli. LP: R.J. Grace. S: Nick Yoder. 2B: Tyler Shisler, D; Jon Markulics, Mike Gladis, H. HR: Shane Kelly, D; Dylan Maria, H.