After a team wins a championship, the good news for the collective runners-up is the conventional wisdom that maybe next year things will be different.
In the case of Catholic League baseball, maybe not.
The Neumann-Goretti High School team, which outlasted LaSalle 3-1 in last year’s eight-inning championship pitching duel, looks almost exactly like the hungry group that has already raced out to a perfect 4-0 record with barely a trace of sweat.
After defeating Lansdale Catholic 5-2 in the season opener on March 26, the Saints have dispatched their next three opponents to the tune of 36-0.
Players are talking about doing something that has never been done during the Neumann era – winning consecutive league titles. The Saints last year became the first Neumann squad since 1960 to finish on top. What’s kind of scary and probably disappointing for the rest of the Catholic League is that only two of the 10 starters graduated. A welcome addition is newcomer Mike Zolk, a junior who transferred from North Catholic as a playoff-tested, All-Catholic second baseman.
Zolk said it wasn’t easy to leave North Catholic, but he wanted to make the most of his remaining two years of high school, and this will allow him to make many new friends heading into his senior year.
The irony that North Catholic was bounced from the playoffs by Neumann-Goretti 4-0 in last year’s quarterfinals was not lost on Zolk.
“We had a good team, but so did they,” said Zolk. “It was disappointing. We felt confident that we would win, but we let up those (four) runs in the first inning and that really hurt. But that’s in the past. Hopefully I’ll be a part of a championship here.”
The player that did most of the damage in Neumann-Goretti’s 4-0 quarterfinal playoff win over North is returning. Senior lefty Mark Donato hurled a three-hit, nine-strikeout masterpiece and also contributed a two-run triple. He has already thrown a two-hitter against Lansdale Catholic and an abbreviated no-hitter against West Catholic this season.
Donato is still joined by fellow pitching aces Al Baur and Mike Riverso in what is easily the top pitching staff in the Catholic League, if not the tri-state area. If – probably when – the Saints reach the PIAA state playoffs, they will have a realistic chance of washing away the disappointment of losing in last year’s state semifinals.
After winning the Catholic League last year, the architect of the program, 1992 Neumann graduate Lou Spadaccini, remembered what it had been like in the recent past when his team struggled through a 3-18 overall record in 2007.
Spadaccini talked about how the season was still enjoyable because it allowed him to spend time with his likeable players. Those youngsters have now taken the Catholic League by storm.
“Our kids love to compete,” said Spadaccini. “They are fun to be around.”
Now that the Saints have become the marquee team in the Catholic League, there may be some pressure to defend their reign. So far at least, that hasn’t seemed to faze them.
“We have a lot of respect for the rest of the league,” said Baur, who struck out 10 and allowed two hits in an 8-0 victory over Lansdale Catholic on March 28 and then was just as strong six days later, when he tossed five shutout innings and K’d seven while knocking in four runs in the Saints’ shutout victory over Conwell-Egan. “We’re not looking too far ahead, just trying to get better as the season goes on.”
Experience and maturity. In athletics, that’s a lethal combination.
At press time, Neumann-Goretti was set to face 11-0 local powerhouse Germantown Academy at home. Mark Donato was scheduled to face Germantown’s nationally recruited Kennan Kish on the mound.
John Knebels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org