Coming into the 2021-’22 baseball season, both junior Evan Brown and senior Jeremy Cheeseman looked forward to getting back on the diamond for Cherokee, after injuries kept the pair from playing where they felt most comfortable.
Following a strong start on the year – which at one point included a six-game winning streak – the Chiefs defeated Delran 9-5 in the first round of the 48th annual Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic, with Brown and Cheeseman being two of the leading reasons for Cherokee’s opening-round win.
Brown hit a leadoff home run in the bottom of the first inning to set the offensive tone early on, giving Cherokee a lead it would not relinquish. The junior would end the day with two hits, three RBIs and a stolen base, while also playing stellar defense at second.
After a freshman season lost to the pandemic, Brown played just a handful of games last year before suffering a hip fracture midway through the spring. It would limit him to just 21 at-bats his sophomore season.
“I just try to enjoy every moment I can,” Brown said. “I know firsthand that it can be taken away from me just like that. I just take it one game at a time. I’d been looking forward to playing for Cherokee ever since I was a kid, and I went to all the games when I was younger.
“So I don’t take this for granted at all.”
Through Cherokee’s first 15 games of the season, Brown leads the Chiefs in hits, home runs and runs scored, all from the leadoff spot. Coach Marc Petragnani – in his 14th season at the helm for Cherokee – said watching Brown come back this season and play even better than he did last year while moving to the top of the lineup has been something special to watch.
“He’s a catalyst for this team; we moved him to the leadoff spot at the start of the year, and he’s just produced,” Petragnani said. “It was very upsetting to see him get hurt last year, but we moved him to the leadoff hole this season and he’s produced, just like a future Division I baseball player should produce in the leadoff hole.”
Cheeseman started on the mound for Cherokee in the opening round of the Diamond Classic, against Delran, going 5.1 innings with two earned runs on five hits while striking out eight batters and walking two. After just 23 total pitches on the mound last season, Cheeseman made his return to pitching this season after having stepped away from the position years ago following a broken shoulder.
In recovery, doctors recommended that the then-eighth grader not try pitching again until he was fully grown, so as not to reaggravate the injury. Coming into his senior year, Cheeseman was ready to get back on the rubber.
“I’d been itching to get back to pitching again really since my sophomore year, and I’m loving getting to do this again,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to get to do this again. I feel most confident when I’m on the mound.”
Despite the coach’s worry coming into the season, Cherokee has had great luck finding reliable and capable arms this spring, following the 2021 graduation of three seniors who threw a combined 108.1 innings. Seniors Shane Sax and Blake Weinstein have stepped into larger roles on the mound this season than they did last year. The addition of Cheeseman to the staff, as well as other arms, has Cherokee off to a 11-4 start.
“We knew we had a lot of offensive talent and that our pitching might be a question mark, because we didn’t have a lot of innings returning,” Petragnani said. “But early on, our pitching showed to be a strength. And it’s just kept up that way.”
Last season, Cherokee jumped out to a 13-3 start before losing six of its last eight, something both the coach and returning players remember very well. As June gets closer, the team agrees that it can’t afford to get comfortable or complacent.
“I think we’re a good team that needs to keep getting better, because the competition we play will also just keep getting better,” Petragnani said. “I like the potential of this team, but we still have a whole lot of work to do.”
“We didn’t get as much done last year as we should have,” Brown said. “Coming into this year, we said we were going to be all in. That’s our motto. So we need to keep playing like a team and take it one game at a time – and see how far that takes us.”