True to form: Paul VI hits its stride following Pop McKenna tournament

Coach Gary Sarno reaches career win 500 with two at recent tournament

MATTHEW SHINKLE/South Jersey Sports Weekly
Junior shortstop Mike Lucarelli watches a pitch being thrown against Eastern on April 28. He and his teammates recently won the Pop McKenna Tournament for Paul VI.

During Gary Sarno’s first year at the helm of the Paul VI baseball team last season, his players got wind of the fact that Sarno was close to a milestone number: career win  500 as a head coach. 

The Eagles were unable to reach the number during the 2020-’21 season, going 13-7 en route to a NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public B semifinal round appearance in the sectional tournament.  

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Sarno needed just six wins to reach the mark before the current season started, something his players were once again more than aware of in early April. After a 4-2 start to the 2021-’22 season, the Eagles entered West Deptford’s annual Pop McKenna Tournament just two wins shy of Sarno’s milestone, while two wins would also clinch a tournament victory for Paul VI. 

“We were aware of it last year and were going for it but came up a little short,” senior Sasha Palma said. 

The Eagles went on to defeat Egg Harbor Township Township 9-3 in their first game before beating host team West Deptford 8-5 to clinch both the Pop McKenna tournament and Sarno’s memorable win.

“It was a nice celebration for winning the tournament and then my own personal self as well,” the coach said. “It’s something that I guess you are kind of aware of as a coach, but to be honest, it’s just a milestone.

“I was, more importantly, just thrilled to be able to win that tournament over two real quality teams.”

According to Sarno, this year’s Paul VI roster is a deep one; the senior-heavy team has depth all over the field — especially in arms off the mound — so the coaching staff  implemented some unorthodox position switches before the start of the year and juggled playing time for deserving team members all over the field throughout games. 

The result has been a 7-2 start to the season for an Eagles team that feels as if it’s just starting to get comfortable on the field.

“We knew we had depth at mostly every position coming into the season, which caused us to have a lot of guys battling for jobs at what felt like every position, and now we’re tasked with looking to make sure guys get playing time as each game dictates it,” Sarno said. “But the guys have been more than willing to make these changes to give us the maneuverability to put together a lineup and squad for each game that gives us the best chance to win.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he added. “We have a lot of depth, so we want to keep getting guys playing time where we can, while keeping everyone in tune to what we’re trying to accomplish this year.”

Palma is one of the few players whose position switched before the start of the season, moving from second base to the outfield because of the team’s infield depth. The senior said he gladly made the change to ensure more playing time for himself while doing what’s best for the team.

“I was happy to make the switch,” Palma said. “I wanted to do anything to help the team and to be a factor in the lineup. It was a little tough to get used to the outfield again after spending as much time as I did at second base, but we had a lot of infield guys, so I wanted to help however I could.” 

Despite a 4-2 start leading up to the tournament, Palma and other team leaders didn’t feel the group was playing its best baseball to start the year. But following the two big games, Palma believes they’ve turned a corner.

“We got off to what I think was kind of a slow start for us,” he said. “We just weren’t playing our best. But that weekend tournament really got us going. We played the best baseball I’d seen us play since I’ve been here, and if we keep playing like that, I think we have a chance to make some noise in New Jersey this year.”

Junior Mike Lucarelli was one of the team’s top statistical leaders in several offensive categories last season and entered this past offseason wanting to get stronger for the next step in his game. Part of his offseason plans included a complete rework of his diet and nutrition so he could gain about 15 pounds before the start of his junior year. 

He instead gained 20, and feels the increase made him a stronger baseball player without sacrificing skill or speed on the diamond.

“I was mostly focused on getting stronger since I was a little smaller last year,” Lucarelli said. “I felt that I had big shoes to fill after getting as much playing time as I did last year as a sophomore … And part of that was just a maturity aspect as well.”

Given how the team’s first nine games have gone, Lucarelli agreed that the most recent four games are a stronger indication of the group’s potential than the first five. 

“That tournament was a big turning point for us,” he said. “We didn’t seem as focused as we could’ve been in the games to start the season, but we showed up big against two really good teams in that tournament … 

“We just played the baseball that we know how to play.”

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