Championship effort: Cherry Hill National 9U repeats as state champs

After the pandemic canceled a bid to the World Series in Florida, Cherry Hill National 9U made the most of its summer en route to a state title.

Despite sitting on the sidelines for over two months during the pandemic, Cherry Hill National 9U rolled to an impressive 27-1-1 record en route to district and state championships this summer. (KELLY HENNIGAN/Special to The Sun)

When the pop-up landed in second baseman C.J. Lovelidge’s glove, capturing the game’s 18th out, Cherry Hill National 9U completed a remarkable summer run, one they weren’t even sure would be possible a few months earlier.

For the second straight year, they were state champions.

“They were jumping all over each other, did a dogpile,” coach Joe Olivo said. “It was just wonderful.”

The team’s 10-4 win over Washington Township 9U Blue on Saturday, Aug. 29 captured the state championship and finished off a 27-1-1 season. After losing a game in their first tournament of the year during the second weekend of July, Cherry Hill National 9U rolled off 20 straight wins en route to the title.

It was a pretty nice alternative to where the team was originally supposed to be playing together in August.

After winning the district and Southern New Jersey state championship in 2019, Olivo’s club had earned an invitation to play in the Cal Ripken World Series in Treasure Coast, Fla., originally scheduled for last month. The talented team of grade school kids, who also play together for Cherry Hill’s Combat club team, was eager to test itself against the best youth teams in the country.

They worked out in the fall. They resumed their training after the holidays, staying in baseball shape through January and February. But then March and the COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a standstill.

“We had no idea (if we’d even have a season),” Olivo said. 

The Cal Ripken World Series was canceled not long after the pandemic upended everyone’s lives.

“We had been raising money for a year,” Olivo said. “Everyone had their hotel, their plane airfare paid and everything.”

Based on the performance they put together this summer, repeating as district and state champions and collecting 27 wins in 29 games over a 52-day stretch, Cherry Hill National’s 9U team surely deserves a bid to next summer’s 10U World Series, which could be decided this fall. Until then, they can relish in the memories they made this summer.

When organized sports were able to resume in late June, Olivo’s team hit the ground running, thanks in part to the pristine fields Cherry Hill National President Charles DeChristoper kept up during the layoff and, well, to the natural talent of his team.

Although there may have been a brief period when Olivo was unsure how it’d shake out.

“The kids, you could see it took a toll on some of them with video games and all, getting out of shape,” Olivo said with a hearty laugh. “But we really hit our stride by the middle of July. The kids were back, throwing strikes, and hitting the ball all over the place. We just really have a talented group. Fun to watch and fun to coach.”

When the Southern New Jersey state championship tournament started, they were one of 10 teams vying for the title. But Cherry Hill National rode the momentum they had built up over the last month and persevered.

The championship game was the epitome of a total team effort, despite missing steady center fielder Brendan Cooney (on vacation) and talented pitcher Matt Gonzalez (broke his hand two days before the game). All nine players either scored at least one run or knocked in at least one run. 

Jackson Fraley and Gavin Heil collected two hits apiece from the top two spots in the lineup. Jack Zacharkow and Ryan Hennigan each drove in two runs. Daniel Braem worked three walks, Gianni Manchello walked twice and scored a run, third baseman Jordan Ciervo scored a run and knocked in a run, Lovelidge had a hit, a walk, and a run scored to go along with his game-ending catch, and pitchers Vincent Olivo and Heil combined to allow just three hits from the mound.

“It was so much to watch,” Joe Olivo said. “From the beginning of the year they set out a goal of winning Districts and States. And to actually accomplish it, under these circumstances, it was satisfying as a parent and especially as a coach. You just kind of sit back and let them have fun.”