DEPTFORD – The season provided a glimpse into the future.
A team with five underclassmen in the starting lineup, some may say the Tartans were a year away from being among the region’s upper echelon. Replacing 10 seniors, they were too young to make a serious dent this spring let alone come within one victory of playing for a state championship.
Even with a new core of seniors to lean on, most of the three- and four-year variety, the overall lack of playing experience from top to bottom might be tough to overcome.
D.J. Gore didn’t want to hear it. Somewhere in the back of his mind, thoughts probably lingered. But when the game began and all eyes were focused inside the white lines, his Highland High School baseball team proved it was ready to compete.
Wednesday’s 7-4 loss to Central Jersey champion Allentown (25-2) in the Group 3 state semifinals at Rowan College at Gloucester County didn’t end on a pleasant note. No team wants to lose its last game, especially one where the stakes are extremely high.
But through it all, the Tartans maintained their composure and battled the best way they knew how.
“Our sophomores have two more years to get after this, two more years of chasing the ultimate goal of a state title,” Gore said. “This group of seniors was able to show them the way and lead them down the path.
“We have a great group of sophomores and a very talented class of freshmen. That state-title run will hopefully get started tomorrow. That’s always the goal of the program.”
Highland (19-7) struck first, a three-run opening frame on the strength of Dylan Maria’s three-run homer off the scoreboard in left field. It was the sophomore’s second three-run shot in as many games, his last coming in the same inning against Deptford in the sectional final.
But unlike that game, the Tartans couldn’t keep the opposition from coming all the way back.
The Redbirds cut their deficit to 3-2 on a two-run homer by Chris Reeder in the second inning. They tied it at 3-3 on a sacrifice fly in the fourth and then capitalized on two hits, an error and two walks to score four runs in the fifth.
And while Allentown was getting it done at the plate, Jordan Winston was holding the Tartans in check on the hill.
Pitching in relief of Ryan Huth, the left-hander retired 14 of the 16 hitters he faced over 4 2/3 innings. He struck out six before heading to the bench with two outs in the sixth.
He was then called upon to come back into the game in the bottom of the seventh with runners on first and second with no outs. He would face just three batters, sealing the outcome on an infield pop-up.
“Winston is as good as advertised. He shut us down,” Gore said.
“We didn’t play well defensively. We’ve played really well defensively in the infield but just let a couple of balls … We didn’t make a couple of plays. If we get out of the fifth, maybe things are a little different.”
In defeat, four-year catcher Brian Gallante picked up his 100th career hit on a first-inning single. Like any of his teammates, he’d give it back if it meant playing one more game.
“It was a long road to get here. We were the underdog most of the season until people started to come around for us,” said Gallante, one of just five players in school history to reach the 100-hit milestone. “It’s a tough loss and feels terrible. I’ve got a bad feeling in my stomach right now, but it feels great to get here. These guys are my brothers.
“I can remember my freshman year like it was yesterday. I can remember my first game on varsity at the Highland field like it was yesterday. I wish I could go back to it.”
Allentown 7, Highland 4
Redbirds 020 – 140 – 0 – 7-8-1
Tartans 300 – 000 – 1 – 4-4-4
WP: Jordan Winston. LP: Anthony Masselli. 2B: Matt Colante, Giuseppe Arcuri, A. HR: Chris Reeder, A; Dylan Maria, H.