Entering the playoffs having lost four of your previous five games isn’t ideal. Thankfully for Shawnee High School’s baseball team, the playoffs did not begin last week.
Then again, they entered the critical rounds of the prestigious Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic in that kind of rut, losing to rival Lenape, Kingsway, and both Cherry Hills East and West to begin the month of May. And instead of deterring them, it may have inspired the Renegades.
After a weekend that will go down in Shawnee baseball lore as Super Saturday, toppling state powers St. Augustine and Bishop Eustace in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds, the Renegades capped off their memorable championship run by taking down the team most recently ranked No.1 in South Jersey, Haddonfield, in the tournament’s title game.
Shawnee pitcher Jackson Balzan silenced the Bulldawgs in six shutout innings and fellow seniors Joe Dalsey and E.J. Mangione drove in runs as the Renegades beat Haddonfield 2-0 under the lights at Eastern Regional High School on Wednesday night to capture the program’s first Diamond Classic championship in nearly three decades.
“The first one since 1990,” Balzan said. “And there have been a lot of good teams at Shawnee and a lot of good players. So to win this and put our names in the record books forever, it feels amazing.”
The team’s turnabout in the last two weeks – from a weeklong skid in the always-tough Olympic Conference to South Jersey baseball giant killer in the Diamond – has changed the outlook for what they could accomplish in the South Jersey Group 4 bracket and beyond this postseason.
“It means a lot,” senior Connor Coolahan, who made a handful of stellar plays at shortstop, said of the Diamond’s impact on the month ahead. “I think everyone was doubting us, kind of. We came in (to the quarterfinals of the Diamond) losing to two like iffy teams we probably should have beaten, and everyone probably thought we were going to roll over. So to come in here and win and just show everyone that we don’t back down.”
And now Shawnee will be looked at in a different light. They’re wearing the bullseye as Diamond champs. They’re no longer the hunters, but the hunted.
This senior-laden team will surely wear that target well. In the Diamond Classic title game it was the steely-eyed Balzan and sure-handed Coolahan who set the tone in a taut battle with the Bulldawgs.
Balzan’s biggest test came in the top of the fifth inning, when he issued a two-out walk to load the bases with Haddonfield’s middle of the order up and Shawnee holding a tenuous 1-0 lead. The lefty aced the exam: Balzan threw three straight strikes to send the Bulldawgs’ three-hole hitter down.
“He knows how to pitch, how to locate,” Shawnee coach Brian Anderson said. “We threw a lot of first-pitch changeups today and it got pop-ups at times when we needed them. The fact that he didn’t back down – there were a couple of times I thought he might have had a strike three – he showed a lot of composure today.”
After Balzan handed off to reliever Dylan Parker, Coolahan recorded the game’s final out on a routine grounder, setting off a wild celebration on the mound. But Coolahan also recorded the first out of the seventh inning, too … although it was a tad unconventional.
With no one out and a runner on second, Coolahan fielded a grounder and, rather than taking the sure out at first, he pivoted to his right and fired a strike to third base, where a tag was applied to get the lead runner instead.
“He’s confident,” Anderson said. “Connor has been a three-year starter and trust me, we’ll miss his presence out there, he’s been a very steady guy.”
Coolahan said he was simply following orders from his third baseman.
“Dom Frigiola kept saying ‘three, three, three!’ and I was like, ‘might as well,’” Coolahan said. “I trusted him and knew if we got that out, he’s not at third, and he probably would have scored, so it would give Dylan more confidence out there. So it felt good to get that out.”
Two outs later, the Renegades were feeling better than good, winning South Jersey’s premier in-season tournament for the first time in 29 years.
“We feel like we can play with anybody,” Anderson said. “As any Olympic (Conference) American (Division) coach would say, if you get through that division you feel pretty confident when you leave that division. We respect all the teams we’ve played, but I feel like the Olympic American schedule is kind of like a mini Diamond Classic every time we play, everyone can beat anybody, just like in the Diamond.”