Defend the crown: West looking to repeat as SJ Group III champs in 2021

After a lost 2020 season, new faces rise to the occasion

In the midst of his 12th year at the helm of the Cherry Hill West baseball program, coach Dan McMaster has seen a plethora of young men come through the program and develop their skills over their high school careers.

Back in 2019, the program captured its first sectional title under his reign, and its first since 1993, when it defeated Triton 6-3 to capture the South Jersey Group III Championship, avenging a 6-0 sectional final loss to Seneca from the year prior.

After a lost 2020 season, the Lions are back on the diamond and playing like the defending champions that they are; but despite the recent title, only two players remain from the championship season — seniors Zachary Owens, who got just one at-bat during the championship season, and Blake Mitnick, who pitched 5.1 innings across the teams 30 total games.

In fact, the the team has as many siblings on its current team from the championship season — senior Dylan Atiya, younger brother of Eli, and sophomore Nick Berckman, younger brother of Danny — as it does returning players.

Regardless of a championship season or not in 2019, majority of West’s players this season are getting the first varsity action of their careers, which McMaster says, from his perspective, could be a very challenging position to be in.

“I think what makes it tough is that we really pride ourselves on the development of our players within our own program,” said McMaster. “Not only did the varsity and senior guys from last year miss out on a season, but a lot of our up and coming players lost a year of development at the JV level.

“I do feel like that our program, along with everyone else of course because we’re all in the same boat, feel a little behind in that respect,” added McMaster.

Fortunately for McMaster, it more than looks like his guys came to play early on this season.

Through the teams first seven games of the season, the team has a 6-1 record. Even including it’s 8-1 loss to Shawnee after a 5-0 start to the season, West scored 82 through its first seven games while only allowing ten, having already shut out four teams. Its performance thus far also earned the program yet another berth into the Diamond Classic tournament.

With this year being slightly shortened due to the pandemic, there can be an added sense of urgency to get on track as quickly as possible in time for playoffs later this summer. Having watched those older then them snap a 26-year drought just two years ago, the new batch of upperclassmen are on a mission to defend their state title.

“These guys are hungry just like I expected them to be and they’re appreciative of the opportunity to play,” said McMaster. “This season is a little bit of a sprint in that March 26 to April 19 was our preseason and we were trying to develop guys, find a lineup and keep guys healthy … its like cramming for a final the day before a test.”

One of the team’s multiple standouts thus far in the early part of the season is senior Joe Longo, who currently leads the team in hits with 13, runs scored with 12 and doubles with three while also hitting the teams only two home runs.

Despite a short preseason leading up to the season, Longo says him and others on the team took advantage of every chance they could go hit in the cage or get on the field over the past year or so, despite not playing in 2020, in order to be ready for an eventual 2021 season.

“We practiced a lot before the preseason even came about to be honest,” said Longo. “So once that March 26 start date came we were already super prepared for all the practices and everything that would come with a tight season like this. We were pretty prepared, mentally and physically.”

Longo, one of many guys getting their first varsity action this season, said there were challenging moments over the past that could have persuaded him to relax or not stay as active in the cage or on the practice fields in the offseason. However, he was looking forwarded to the eventual opportunity to play once again and did not want to squander any chance he received.

“My dad always taught me to stick through whatever you might be going through, just keeping going to prove everyone wrong and keep working hard,” said Longo. “In the offseason I would lift a lot and mentally prepare myself for the next day’s practices and lifting too so that I was ready.”

While the team has done remarkable things on offense, the team has also done a phenomenal job thus far on the mound, hurling the four aforementioned shutouts. McMaster credits three seniors for the team’s early success.

“We have three senior pitchers that I think have been and will continue to carry us throughout the season in Sean Davis, Blake Mitnick and Patrick Taney,” said McMaster. “Davis has kind of been the staff ace so far, but I really think the secret to our success will be those three pitchers really leading the charge for us on the mound. Offensively we’ve really done well in, and guys like Longo have been swinging a really hot bat early on, which makes their jobs so much easier out there.”