They’re young, but they are seizing their opportunities.
Neumann-Goretti High School’s baseball roster is filled with underclassmen surrounding just one senior in Yariel Rodriguez. But the youth explosion is coming to fruition at the right time of the season as the Saints began their quest for a Philadelphia Catholic League championship.
Young skills were on display on May 21 as the Saints traveled to Archbishop Wood, and took down the Vikings, 10-3, to earn a right to play La Salle in the PCL semifinals on May 24 at 4 p.m. at Monsignor Bonner & Archbishop Prendergast High School.
“We have a lot of talent here,” First-year head coach Nick Nardini said. “We just had to learn to play winning baseball and I think we’re starting to do that now.”
And it’s coming from all areas.
Rodriguez is the unquestioned leader, playing shortstop and batting in the three-hole. And the senior who was recently named PCL Offensive Player of the Year put together another fine outing with a 2-for-3 effort. He also walked, was hit by a pitch, scored two runs and drove in another. After all of that, he was actually outshined by some of the younger guys.
Junior left fielder Andrew Dankanich was at the top of the list, going 4-for-5 and scoring three times. Dankanich started the early part of the season in the nine-hole but was presented an opportunity to bat second when teammate Christian Cerone was injured a few weeks ago.
“One of our guys went down with a hamstring injury and I was filling his spot,” Dankanich said. “I just wanted to fill in his shoes and keep it rolling for my teammates.”
Cerone has been back in the lineup but Dankanich has made it impossible to move him down to the bottom of the lineup with his recent hot streak of hitting. It has given Nardini plenty of options.
“We put ‘Dank’ at two and he’s taken off,” Nardini said. “He’s so confident in there and he’s been a catalyst for us. When he’s on base, he can steal any base. He’s got wheels.”
Cerone batted cleanup against the Vikings and drove in the first run of the game on a fielder’s choice groundout to help the Saints establish an early 2-0 lead in the first inning. He cranked an RBI double in the third which highlighted a huge four-run frame as Neumann-Goretti stretched the lead to six.
There was plenty of baseball to play, but junior pitcher Jayce Park didn’t allow the Vikings to counter during his first four innings of work. Finally in the fifth, a leadoff home run broke the shutout. And a pair of hits put two on with one out later in the inning, but Park worked his way out of the jam and preserved the five run lead.
“I just believed in our offense,” Park said. “I know if I give up however many runs, I know we come back and we’ll put (the runs) back up. I just wanted to give my teammates a chance to field the ball.”
Park induced a fly ball before getting the third out via strikeout – his seventh of the game – to stomp out the scoring threat before exiting the game after five innings.
“That wasn’t his best stuff today,” Nardini said. “He didn’t have it fully but he’s such a competitor that he goes out there and gives us his best every time. Once he settles in, he’s as good as anybody.”
The Saints tacked on two more in the sixth including an RBI double by freshman designated hitter Richie Cray, who ended up with a pair of hits and three RBIs. Two more insurance runs followed in the seventh. It provided plenty of comfort despite Wood getting a pair of runs in its last at-bats.
It was a rare decisive win at a place that hasn’t been kind to the Saints in recent years, which included an 8-5 loss in Warminster on April 11. Wood had won the last six meetings overall, dating back to 2018 and the Saints hadn’t won a game on the Vikings’ field in over a decade.
“It’s awesome because we snapped an 11-year streak,” Dankanich said. “We haven’t won up here in 11 years. I just really wanted to win this one for my teammates, and especially for ‘Ne-Ne’ (Rodriguez). He’s our leader and he deserves it more than anybody here.”
Each player is fighting for his chance to contribute. The Saints have plenty of players that could make a difference.
“I told our guys from game one that the lineup we start with, I promise you, will not look the same come May or June,” Nardini said. “And they’re in with that. There’s peaks and valleys of a season and guys get hot and go cold, so they have to be willing to sacrifice for the good of the team. And they’ve been super willing to do that.”