Lions Pride: West rises to the top

Cherry Hill West’s baseball team began the month of May the way they steamrolled through April: unbeaten and ready to take on all comers in South Jersey and the state at large in 2019.

Cherry Hill West outfielder Scott Shaw, who will play at Rider next year, as been a consistent cog in the Lions lineup. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

They gathered in shallow right field and let loose as the first day of the second month of the season went just as swimmingly as the opening month. High fives and chest bumps. Joyous screams and smiles all around.

“Thirteen-and-oh, what, huh?!” one player yelled as they bounced along grass at Cherry Hill West High School’s new-look baseball field.

“Oh my God, we love it,” Lions junior shortstop Danny Berckman said of the ritual bouncing-around-of-starting pitcher Brian Robertson in the postgame huddle. “He did a great job today.”

“We try to keep it loose,” added senior center fielder Scott Shaw, “that way we don’t feel the pressure. We’re just out here playing baseball, doing what we do.”

After a month’s worth of games, no one in South Jersey (or the state?) is doing it better than Cherry Hill West.

On May 1, the Lions picked up the top seed in the prestigious Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic, South Jersey’s premier in-season tournament for 46 years, and collected what was perhaps their biggest victory of the season with a 6-2 win over Shawnee. Cherry Hill West completed a heck of a 24-hour run by moving to the top of the NJ.com state rankings on May 2.

“This is a fun time of year,” West coach Dan McMaster said. “As hard as they’ve worked to get to this point, we’re going to have to work harder to maintain it. You don’t win championships in the beginning of May. It’s all about trying to get better. How can we get better? How do we play a cleaner game? You want to continue to build, for the Diamond (Classic) and then for the playoffs.”

Cherry Hill West left-handed pitcher Brian Robertson delivers to the plate. Robertson held Shawnee to two runs on four hits in 5 ⅔ innings of a 6-2 win, a victory that kept the Lions undefeated on the season. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

West is set up for a successful run in both tournaments – the Diamond and the Group 3 playoffs – because it has a lethal combination of pitching depth and an experienced, proven collection of position players. In their win over Shawnee, which bumped their overall record to 13-0, the Lions saw eight of their nine hitters reach base, led by Shaw (two hits, two walks, two RBIs), Berckman (two hits, two RBIs, two stellar plays at shortstop), and Tyler Kubrak (one hit, three walks, two runs, one RBI). Robertson, meanwhile, pitched out of trouble routinely and held a tough Renegades lineup to two runs on four hits in 5⅔  innings.

“Beating this team,” Robertson said after the win, “we have a lot of confidence right now.”

Enough to think it can carry over into the season’s toughest month, when the stakes are raised in May? Why not?

“Because of the hard work we put in every day in practice,” Roberston said on why he believes the Lions can keep rolling. “We still have two- to three-hour practices every day. Nothing changes. We’re just probably the hardest-working team in South Jersey.”

“We’ve got a great group of guys that really work their tails off,” McMaster said. “And we’re seeing the results on the field.”

Cherry Hill West’s Eli Atiya keeps an eye on Shawnee pitcher Brandon Epstein as he inches off second base. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Before taking care of another top-10 South Jersey foe in Shawnee, West’s strongest line on their resume came in what they did when they left the state. They spend Easter week in Virginia Beach and steamrolled over a trio of teams from Maryland and Virginia by a combined score of 44-5.

“Our offense just went off,” Robertson said. “Ryan West, (Danny) Berckman, Scott Shaw, Sylvy (Nick Sylvester), all of them, they all hit.”

“I think we really came together down in Virginia Beach,” McMaster added. “I think it was nice for the guys to spend a week together in the hotel, walking around downtown, there was (good) team bonding. Plus our bats really woke up down there and we had a couple of good offensive efforts, so we tried to keep that momentum as we traveled back north.”

Few teams in any sport can survive the duration of a season without at least one defeat. And West will continue to be challenged, both in the Diamond Classic, in the postseason, and in the 10 Olympic Conference regular season games that remained on their schedule as of May 2, including two games with Bishop Eustace (whom they could meet as many as three times as the Crusaders are the No.2 seed in the Diamond Classic).

But trying to remain unbeaten isn’t the main goal for West. The Lions want to return to the sectional finals (they lost to Nick Decker and Seneca in the South Jersey Group 3 title game last season), avenge that defeat, and continue to prove they’re not the best team in South Jersey but in the state, too.

“I think we should go far,” Berckman said, pointing to the team’s pitching, defense, and chemistry. “We’ve been playing together for forever, since Little League.”

“Teams fade,” added Shaw. “But it doesn’t seem like we’re going to fade.”

Lions first baseman John Gray corrals a ground ball. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
Lions third baseman Frank Ebling gets into position at third base. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
Lions shortstop Danny Berckman fires to first base. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)