Vikings ready to vie for state championship

A lopsided, season-opening loss didn’t define Eastern. Instead, it was the composure and character they showed in the win-or-go-home postseason.

Eastern coach Rob Christ (maroon shirt) gets into the action as the Vikings celebrate the South Jersey Group 4 title last Friday over Cherry Hill East. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Even with one more, very important game looming on its schedule as it went about practice on Wednesday, it’s fair to say Eastern Regional High School’s baseball team is ending the season better than it started it.

“We have a lot of work to do,” longtime Eastern coach Rob Christ said back on April 1, when the Vikings opened the 2019 season with a 12-0 loss at Bishop Eustace. “We have a long way to go.”

But one game isn’t a fair representative of what a team can accomplish, especially one game at the beginning of a season, before a group of athletes come together as one and before a coach understands just what he has at his disposal. Any team that can endure the grueling Olympic Conference American Division schedule in April and May and live to be standing in the NJSIAA playoffs in June is certainly doing something right.

Despite a forgettable Day One, Eastern had put together an unforgettable season as it was on the cusp of the Group 4 state championship game this Saturday (vs. Ridgewood, 7 p.m. at Veterans Park in Hamilton).

“There are only eight public schools that play on the last day, so that’s heady stuff,” Christ said two days after the team advanced to the state finals with a 1-0 win over Manalapan. “I was talking to the kids today that my mindset as a coach and they’re mindset as a team is that you should never be satisfied. … It’s never enough until we are a champion. Right now the mindset is we have one goal and one purpose and we have to find out how to make it come to fruition.”

Eastern pitcher Sam Portnoy delivers a pitch during the South Jersey Group 4 championship game. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

The Vikings reached that plateau in 2013. The fact that they are in position to collect a state title yet again, in the largest group in the state, for the second time in seven years, is a testament to the program (Christ is in his 16th season at Eastern and 22nd season coaching overall) and the preparation and determination of the players in the dugout and on the diamond.

Eastern showed off its true mettle not in the first game of the season but 13 months ago, when it won the prestigious Diamond Classic by knocking off St. Augustine, which was the No.1 team in the state at the time. It was a victory that instilled confidence into the Vikings.

“We have about seven starters back from the Diamond Classic championship team back and that was the biggest game we had played in our life, so that gave us a lot of experience this year,” said senior shortstop Jack Winsett, who will play at Rider University next year.

Eastern endured some ups and downs in 2019 – it followed the season-opening loss to Eustace by reeling off a nine-game winning streak, but also lost six of its first 11 games in May – yet has found a way to play its best baseball in the most important time of the season, when one defeat can send you home for good.

Eastern’s bench gets loud during the South Jersey Group 4 championship game against Cherry Hill East. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

“I think it’s that we really wanted the playoffs, that was the big thing,” senior pitcher David Holland said of a Vikings team that lost in the quarterfinals of sectionals last season. “With this set of guys, the seniors, we wanted the playoffs, we wanted to win in the playoffs more than anything. … Having a tough schedule prepares you, but there are just so many good teams. But as long as you keep getting better, you’ll win.”

And that’s just what Eastern did in 2019, knocking off Williamstown in round one of the South Jersey Group 4 bracket before collecting wins over Olympic American rivals Cherokee and Cherry Hill East, defeating the division champion Cougars two Fridays ago for the first sectional championship for the program since 2014.

A much bigger prize could await the Vikings as they head into the final weekend of the high school sports season, one they hoped will be the defining moment of their prep baseball careers.

“I’m really proud,” Winsett, who was also on the Carpenter Cup championship team last summer, said of his Vikings teammates. “Everyone has underestimated us this year because we don’t have Jack Herman or Davis Schneider and those guys, I don’t know, we like being like that, because then we have more to prove. …  I’ve had a great career here, I’ve loved it. I mean there are no words for it. After (Saturday), we’ll have left our legacy here. (Even) not having the strongest team according to what others might say, we found ways to win. To win a state championship? I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Eastern infielders Isaac Fendrick, Jack Winsett, and Cole Regn and pitcher Sam Portnoy during a break in action. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
Eastern’s Devin Hunt celebrates after hitting a triple during a three-run sixth inning in the South Jersey Group 4 championship against Cherry Hill East. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
Eastern’s bench erupts as the Vikings score three times in the sixth inning to take control against East. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
(RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
(RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)
(RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)