Four area teams entered the field of 16 when the prestigious 40th Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic got underway on May 11.
When the quarterfinals begin today, just one of those squads will be left in action.
The Vineland High School baseball team is the lone contender remaining with a shot at giving the greater Cumberland County area a second Classic champion in the last three years. Buena, one of the three local teams to fall last week, won the event in 2011 over St. Augustine — another program that had a less-than-desirable fate in the Diamond’s first round just seven days ago.
The Fighting Clan’s 12-5 win over Northern Burlington was the program’s first Diamond win since 2006. Vineland was making its first appearance in the event since 2008.
Next up for the Clan is a Cherry Hill West team that made quick work of Buena in a six-inning, 11-0 victory at the Classic. The Lions are one of five Olympic Conference teams still in the running. Vineland feels that its opening round win over the Greyhounds will have it more relaxed for the quarterfinal game.
“That win has us just as pumped to play the next one,” Vineland shortstop and pitcher Johnny Malatesta said. “We know we can compete with those guys up there and we want to show it on the field.”
The Clan will likely need an offensive performance similar to the one they had against Northern Burlington if they hope to knock off the Lions. Vineland managed 13 hits in its 12-run assault of the Greyhounds.
“There’s no better feeling than hitting the ball, and I was on the mound and the guys were scoring runs for me and it helped me cruise,” Malatesta said. “When the offense is going like that it just makes you feel like you can go out there and mow them down.”
Vineland enjoyed the experience of getting to play an upper-echelon team not from the Cape-Atlantic League when it met Northern Burlington. Now shifting to an Olympic team in Cherry Hill West will offer yet another new experience.
“These are teams we’ve never played before, except in the playoffs or something, and with the teams from around here out we have to step up,” Vineland senior pitcher and infielder Don Money said. “We want to come out of this one with a win, then hopefully take the whole thing.”
A Vineland win would mean the team would play again Sunday against either Washington Township or Audubon at 1 p.m. A victory in the semifinals would land the Clan in the 5 p.m. title game at Eastern on Sunday.
For now, Vineland is just enjoying the experience the Classic has to offer.
“It’s more competitive, you have to work harder, play harder to put yourself in a position to win,” freshman outfielder Ja’Ques Colon said.
Vineland coach John Malatesta said there’s no question his team will be confident when it faces Cherry Hill West.
The Clan are getting a feel for what it’s like to play in meaningful games.
“You play that kind of game and you show yourself and everybody else that you belong,” coach Malatesta said of Vineland’s win over Northern Burlington. “You think, OK, we can do this. Baseball is a game of confidence.”
With the NJSIAA state tournament brackets announced on Thursday, we can now start to break down the roads teams will have to travel to earn a sectional title.
The biggest story is Vineland, which earned the No. 2 seed in Group IV South and will host No. 15 Atlantic City on Monday. The Fighting Clan will be seeking their first postseason win since 2006. Vineland, would be wise not to overlook the Vikings.
The Clan topped division rival Atlantic City, 4-3, on April 16 before earning a season sweep with a 5-0 win on May 9. Still, the Vikings are no pushover, evidenced by an impressive 8-2 win over Bishop Eustace on Wednesday.
Buena and Delsea captured the top seeds in Groups II and III, respectively, and should be among the favorites to compete for South titles. The Chiefs have scuffled of late, however, with losses to Cherry Hill West in the Diamond Classic on May 11 and Ocean City on Thursday in a game that was basically for the CAL National title. Delsea could see Kingsway in the second round, a team that just handed the Crusaders a 1-0 defeat in extra innings on Tuesday.
St. Augustine learned Friday that it was moved from a No. 3 to No. 2 seed in Non-Public A South, which would keep the Hermits at home for a majority of the tournament if all teams in the group hold serve. Non-Public A is a meat grinder though and no game, aside from the first round against Pingry on Friday, should be easy for the Prep.
Millville’s hot streak down the stretch allowed it to sneak into the Group IV South field as the No. 16 seed.
The Bolts’ prize? A date with No. 1 Eastern.
Millville will need to play sound defense in order to have a shot at the upset. One thing the Bolts could have going for them is a potentially long run by Eastern in the Diamond Classic. The Vikings could conceivably play three games over the weekend if they reach the Classic final.
Sacred Heart begins its last-ever playoff run as the No. 10 seed in Non-Public B South and will travel 108 miles one way to Gill-St. Bernard on Friday. Schalick is the No. 9 seed in Group I South and will open at Woodbury on Monday. Cumberland’s strong start earned it the No. 4 seed in Group III and the Colts will face a battle-tested Winslow Township team.