For Eustace and Eastern, baseball’s Opening Day sends mixed messages

The veteran-laden Crusaders are eyeing the school’s first state title in 13 years while the Vikings hope to build a competitive pitching staff from the ground up following Day One.

A cloud of infield dirt surrounds Bishop Eustace’s Eric Sabato and Eastern’s Jake Winsett on a play at second base. The Crusaders beat the Vikings on high school baseball’s Opening Day, 12-0. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Sam Tropiano and Rob Christ have been around long enough to know that it’s unwise to put too much emphasis on high school baseball’s opening day.

Combined, the two South Jersey coaching veterans have more than 1,000 career wins in 57 seasons. Tropiano’s in his 34th season at Bishop Eustace Preparatory School; Christ is in his 16th at Eastern Regional High School after six years at Gateway.

A game played under an inviting sun on a brisk afternoon in Pennsauken, on the first day of the first month of the spring season, isn’t going to decide conference champions or playoff seeds. But when it’s a matchup of two of the area’s consistently strong programs, it is at the very least an indicator of where those teams stand on Day One.

Advantage, Eustace.

The host Crusaders rode the momentum of having a veteran pitcher on the mound and took advantage of the Vikings’ overall lack of pitching in rolling to a 12-0 win, a game ended after 4 ½ innings by way of the 10-run mercy rule.

“It’s a good confidence booster,” said Bishop Eustace senior and Marlton resident Matt Orlando, who struck out six batters in four shutout innings. “But we have a lot of tough games coming up. It’s one more game for us, but it should be good to roll off of this.”

Bishop Eustace senior Matt Orlando, who will play at the University of Maryland next year, struck out six in four shutout innings against Eastern. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Tropiano, whose team was sporting new uniforms that were either an ode to Vanderbilt University’s baseball powerhouse or a senior citizen center pajama party, called his team’s first game “a good day.”

“We’ve got a veteran squad and they were really rounding into form as the scrimmages were going on,” Tropiano said. “We felt good about what we were doing and today we had our ace on the hill and he took care of business. A couple of clutch hits from some of the older kids like (Michael) Guzzardo. … This a pretty good lineup, it’s very deep. When your nine-hole hitter is knocking in runs, it’s a pretty solid team.”

Eastern, meanwhile, no longer has All-State outfielder Jack Herman, the school’s all-time hits leader and current Pittsburgh Pirates prospect, in its lineup and it’s also rebuilding its pitching staff. The Vikings have some strong performers back who should keep them competitive (including seniors Jake Winsett and Dylan Stezzi) but may have a difficult time trying to capture their first sectional title since 2014 if they don’t have enough pitching.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Christ said after the opener, when his pitchers walked 11 batters in four innings. “My concern was our pitching staff and we didn’t have one of our better days. So (how we do) is going to be contingent on their development. …Unfortunately, in our conference you can’t just have one or two guys. So from a collective standpoint, we have a long way to go. That’s why coaching is a verb.”

Eastern shortstop Jake Winsett turns a double play with Bishop Eustace’s Patrick Brady sliding into second base. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

While Eastern attempts to build as the season progresses, Bishop Eustace’s veteran team, led by Orlando, Guzzardo, Johnny Piacentino, and juniors Nick Senior and Chase Conklin, are eyeing the state crown that’s eluded the proud baseball program for more than a decade.

The Crusaders have eight state titles in school history – only Gloucester Catholic has more in New Jersey – but are in a dozen-year drought. Bishop Eustace’s last title came in 2006.

Last year, they suffered a walk-off defeat to St. Augustine in the South Jersey Non-Public A semifinal, and the year before, in 2017, they were up 3-0 in the sixth inning against St. Augustine before suffering a 4-3 loss in extra innings.

“We’ve been three outs away,” Orlando said. “And no one works harder than us, honestly. Hopefully this year we’ll get those last three outs.”

Tropiano isn’t going to make too much of one game on April 1. But he knows he has the depth and a legit top starter to trot out in big games in May and June.

“For Matty, this is his fourth year on varsity and pitching varsity, and it shows,” Tropiano said. “He doesn’t get frazzled by too much. He’s a clinician out there, he’s a surgeon. He gives us a chance to win every time he’s on the hill.”

Bishop Eustace junior Charlie Sanzio (left) is greeted by his teammates after striking out two in a scoreless fifth inning to end the game. Sanzio also had three RBI. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

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Pick up the April 10-16 edition of South Jersey Sports Weekly inside your Sun Newspaper to see a full-page photo gallery of the April 1 game between Eastern Regional and Bishop Eustace.