Neumann-Goretti baseball had eyes on another prize

Team photo of the 2019 Neumann-Goretti baseball team from last spring. The Saints were primed for a big season in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the season. (Contributed photo)

Conor Cook has an appreciation for baseball history.

Having visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York as a 12-year-old, Cook remembers being wide-eyed as he walked the hallways of the museum.

Back in South Philadelphia, Cook and his teammates were ready to write their own chapters of baseball history as the Neumann-Goretti High School baseball team was primed for a big run in the 2020 spring season.

After two weeks of early March practices, the season came to a screeching halt, and was eventually canceled when Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all schools closed through the end of the pandemic as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s just heartbreaking because we put in so much work over the whole year,” said Cook, a senior third baseman and pitcher. “We dedicated so much time to this one season, and for it to be canceled — I just can’t even put it into words. It’s awful.”

Although Cook, a Queen Village resident, was only beginning his second season with the Saints after transferring from Springside Chestnut Hill Academy following his sophomore season, the framework for Neumann-Goretti’s 2020 season began three years ago, as the freshman class witnessed the Saints winning the Philadelphia Catholic League in 2017 as well as a PIAA Class 2A state championship.

Senior first baseman Joe DiFebbo was one of those freshmen at the time who got to travel with the team and celebrate the program’s second of back-to-back state titles at Medlar Field at Penn State University.

“I was on (junior varsity) most of the year, but I was brought up near the end of the year just to be around it,” said DiFebbo, who lives near 15th Street and Oregon Avenue. “I knew I wasn’t getting on the field. Being a part of it was a great experience, the best time in the world. But going into my senior year and having a role in those big moments would have been even better. To lose that — I’m trying to battle with it but it hurts inside.”

Cook was also likely going to be in the spotlight in those big moments. Aside from being the main pitching options, along with fellow senior Jeff Rosenblum, last year’s leadoff hitter was a tough out after recording zero strikeouts in 84 at-bats. Although an extreme competitor, Cook would probably welcome a three-pitch strikeout if it meant getting to take the field again with his teammates.

“We would consider Conor an MVP candidate,” Neumann-Goretti coach Mike “Zoom” Zolk said. “He can hit the (heck) out of the ball, probably hit .400, and he could get us six or seven wins on the mound, which is MVP-like.”

Conor Cook, a Millersville commit, was expected to have a big season for the Neumann-Goretti High School baseball team. (Contributed photo).

Zolk knows a lot about his team and the potential it had in getting back to the big stage. As a former player at Neumann-Goretti, Zolk helped the Saints win a Catholic League title in 2011 during his senior year. He wanted nothing more than to share the same opportunity with the 2020 senior class.

“A lot of them were younger brothers or cousins of guys who won before,” Zolk said. “They’re all South Philly guys who have been around the neighborhood and the program and know about the history. They saw us celebrate (a Catholic League championship) 10 years ago when they were 6 or 7 years old. And all of our alumni make it a point to come back and talk to the kids.”

Some go a step further. The entire coaching staff of Zolk, Albert Baur, Nick Nardini, John Lamotta and Tommy Nardini are Neumann-Goretti graduates who played in the program.

“That’s what makes it so special,” Zolk said. “Four of the other coaches are from different graduating classes and all have won at some point. So we talk about the history of the program all the time.”

That dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed by the players.

“They really do care,” Cook said. “They know a lot about the program and how much it means to everyone.”

The closeness of the coaching staff has trickled down to the current players, who hold a group chat almost every day after online schoolwork is completed. With baseball on the mind, the chat evolved into an online video game league of “MLB the Show 20” in which each guy has a team in the league. It includes lots of trash talking, but it’s a great way to keep close with teammates during the pandemic.

“That’s always the rock for all of us,” DiFebbo said. “Whether it’s playing on the field together or playing a video game, it always comes back to baseball, we’re always keeping connected like that.”

Underclassmen will get another shot next season for the Saints. Cook will continue his career at Millersville University next year. DiFebbo’s baseball career is likely done, as he plans to attend Community College of Philadelphia before transferring to another local school for his junior year.

“This was my final hurrah, my last shot of doing something,” DiFebbo said. “I’ve been around the program a lot of years since my brother played here. Aside from my family, baseball is my other family. They’re the people I want to be around.”

Aside from baseball, the senior class was looking forward to other events like the senior prom, class trips and graduation ceremonies, which are all uncertainties at this point.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” Cook said. “It’s hard to picture it. And things are boring, you don’t get to see any of your friends.”

Both Cook and DiFebbo were named captains this year along with junior Brian Heston. Despite not having a season, it’s still an honor they will cherish for years.

“I feel absolutely honored to be a team captain because it shows the work I’ve put in during my three and a half years,” DiFebbo said. “I was seen as one of those dudes who could lead this team to great things and win championships. I’m just very grateful because, if we stepped on the field, we would have put our team in the best position we could to win it.”

This baseball season may be forgotten, but the players certainly won’t be.