TOMS RIVER – No matter who puts on the maroon and gold from year to year, the goal is always the same.
Winning a conference title is part of the process, while capturing a sectional crown sets the stage.
But walking away with the big prize – a state championship and the lifelong memories that come with it – is what drives the Gloucester Catholic High School baseball team.
With sophomore Lillo Paxia ending the game with a walk-off single in the bottom of the sixth inning Saturday, the Rams completed their yearlong mission and gave their senior class something that had been missing from its resume.
Seizing command with an eight-run first inning, Gloucester Catholic went on to defeat Newark Academy 15-5 to capture the Non-Public B state championship at Toms River South High School.
The title is the first since 2013 and marks the 18th in 22 finals appearances – far and away the most in state history. Audubon and Bishop Eustace are tied for second with eight state titles apiece.
“It was our last chance to be a Ram with all of the seniors, so we gave it all we had,” said senior catcher Sam Punzi, an Iona commit who smacked a three-run double as part of the first-inning blitz. “There wasn’t any extra pressure. It was just like a regular baseball game. We were excited to play another baseball game.
“(Losing) would have been a disappointment to us. The South Jersey championship was a good goal for us, but our ultimate goal was right here today – winning this game.”
Gloucester Catholic finished another tremendous season 28-3 overall. The Rams won 14 of their final 15 games, losing only to Non-Public A state finalist St. Augustine in the Diamond Classic finale during that run.
St. Augustine was the only South Jersey team to beat the Rams, also winning an April 30 matchup in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Millville. Bergen Catholic had the other victory, handing them a 3-0 setback on May 6.
“Everyone was willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the team,” said second-year coach Adam Tussey, owner of a 52-7 record with the team. “It started at the top with the seniors and just trickled down to the younger guys.
“I just wanted to put out a competitive team, a team that’s classy and plays the game the right way; a team that prepares and practices the right way. When you get a group of talented players like that, if you do the little things the right way you don’t have to feel much pressure. You can just play the game. These guys put in the extra work, put in the preparation time.”
Andrew Vail picked up the victory, scattering three hits and allowing two runs in four innings of relief.
“I just wanted to throw strikes. That’s all I really needed to do,” said Vail, a junior left-hander and Maryland commit.
Said Tussey: “Andrew came out throwing multiple pitches for strikes. He’s a big competitor, a special guy on the mound.”
With Newark Academy scoring two runs in its initial at-bat, Gloucester Catholic wasted no time turning momentum around for good. The Rams sent 12 batters to the plate in the home half of the first, highlighted by Punzi’s three-run double and a two-run triple off the bat of Alex Persichetti.
“I was sitting fastball and he gave me one right down the middle,” Punzi said. “We needed momentum coming back our way. It was our turn to get back on top.”
From there, the Rams tacked on single runs in the second, third and fifth innings. They then sealed the outcome with a four-run sixth, getting RBI singles from Kyle Pierman (2-for-3, 2 RBIs), Adam Bonomo (2-for-3, 2 runs) and Paxia’s walk-off to left-center.
“If I see a fastball, I’ll hit it. … I saw it,” said Paxia, a sophomore right fielder and Florida State commit.
“I have to thank my teammates for the opportunity to be in that situation. I’m very humbled to have the opportunity to help my seniors. That’s the least I could do. They’ve helped me so much and there’s no way I can pay them back. So if that’s the only thing I could do, I’m proud that I did it.”
Gloucester Catholic 15, Newark Academy 5
Minutemen 211 – 001 – 5-4-4
Rams 811 – 014 – 15-10-3
WP: Andrew Vail. LP: Will Hutchinson. 2B: Adam Bonomo, Sam Punzi, GC. 3B: Alex Persichetti, GC.