LAWRENCEVILLE – The count didn’t favor St. Augustine’s Jack Billings.
The junior fell behind 0-2 to Bishop Eustace reliever Brian Bernetich with runners at first and second in a game knotted at three in the eighth inning. Two innings earlier, Billings had come through with a sacrifice fly that tied it, but this time his at-bat had the chance to give the Hermits (24-6) their first lead of the day.
“I haven’t been able to help my team as a pitcher, so I try to help with my bat," said Billings, who has struggled with some shoulder tenderness this spring. “I figured he would try to pitch me down and away so that’s where I was looking. Just went with it.”
St. Augustine, ranked No. 1 in the SJSD Top 10, beat No. 4 Bishop Eustace 4-3 in eight innings to win the South Jersey Non-Public A title. The Hermits will play North Jersey champion Delbarton on Saturday at a yet to be determined time at either Toms River East, North or South high school.
“We’re going to embrace the challenge and it should be a good game,” Hermits head coach Mike Bylone said.
“(Billings and Kevin Eaise) have been our top hitters this year. Jack went down earlier but he fit in well as a hitter. He’s up in a lot of RBI situations and he’s come through all year.”
Through five innings Bishop Eustace (23-6) rode the arm and quick tempo of sophomore starter Matt Orlando. The Maryland recruit allowed just three hits without a walk as the Crusaders pieced together a 3-0 lead.
That said, in the bottom of the fifth, they loaded the bases up 2-0 with no outs against Hermits starter Matt Miles. Miles gave way to closer Cole Vanderslice, who came in and got a fielder’s choice and two strikeouts to end the threat.
Vanderslice did cough up a wild pitch, but even with that one inherited runner crossing the plate, the momentum changed.
“You could feel the difference on our bench,” Hermits senior Greg Elfreth said. “We were still in it and the feeling just changed. We know we can come back, we did it against Gloucester Catholic earlier this year and to us that means we can do it to anybody.
“Then that error really got us going."
That error came to start the sixth as Jake Catalano opened the frame with a ground ball to second. Catalano, who had two hits off Orlando, never hesitated down the line and when the throw was dropped, the Hermits were in business.
An Elfreth single and a double by University of Pennsylvania commit Josh Hood made the score 3-1. Then, Eaise and Billings each hit sacrifice flies to tie the game at 3-3.
“After that we just knew this game was ours," Elfreth said.
Especially with Vanderslice on the mound. The sophomore retired all 12 hitters he faced, including a bloop out behind second base to end the game.
“I’ve been a starter my whole life, but this year I got a chance to close against Mainland,” said Vanderslice, who stuck out six. “I really like that role.”
“It’s like a goalie in the Stanley Cup playoffs,” Bylone said. “You stick with the hot hand. I’m not changing a thing.”
Not that anyone thinks the veteran coach should change a thing about this edition of the Hermits.
St. Augustine 000-003-01--4-8-0
Bishop Eustace 011-010-00--3-7-1
WP: Cole Vanderslice. LP: Brian Bernetich. 2B:Josh Hood, SA; Mike Guzzardo, John Piacentino, BE.