No league title for N-G, but states up next

Neumann-Goretti junior Evan McCoach smashes a single in the Catholic League semifinal game against La Salle. Photo/Mark Zimmaro
Neumann-Goretti junior Evan McCoach smashes a single in the Catholic League semifinal game against La Salle. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

They surpassed everyone’s expectations except for their own.

The Neumann-Goretti High School baseball team’s pursuit for a Catholic League championship might have ended on Wednesday after a 6-2 setback to La Salle at Bonner-Prendergast. But the scrappy bunch of ballplayers from South Philly never felt they were outmatched despite having just one senior on the roster.

“Everybody from top to bottom in our lineup,” junior center fielder Evan McCoach said. “We never give up. There’s always a hope that we can piece together a big inning or a rally. I believe in them from top to bottom. It didn’t go the way we wanted to today, but we fought.”

The Saints fell behind, 2-0 in the bottom of the second inning and it looked like things might get worse as La Salle’s Nathan Dress looped a two-out ball into right field with the bases loaded, but Neumann-Goretti’s Andrew Dankanich sprawled out for a diving catch to end the inning and save multiple runs. The Saints’ Will Gural led off the bottom of the second with a single and Billy Smith followed with a walk, setting up McCoach for an RBI single to cut the lead in half.

Neumann-Goretti coach Nick Nardini calms down his team in the first inning of the PCL semifinal against La Salle. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

The Explorers restored the two-run lead in the fourth, but the Saints punched back in the fifth as two hit batsmen and a walk allowed senior Yariel Rodriguez to drive in a run with an RBI fielder’s choice to make it 3-2. 

The opposing bench knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

“We knew we were going to face a good team today that really fights,” La Salle center fielder Tahir Parker said. “They’re just dog fighters. We knew we had to bring the same type of energy.”

Pitcher Joe Gallagher threw four strong innings before Santino Pharma wiggled out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the fifth. But after the Saints couldn’t get the equalizer in the sixth, the Explorers took full advantage in the bottom half of the frame, pushing across three insurance runs. 

Neumann-Goretti starter Joe Gallagher delivers a pitch in the PCL semifinal. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

“That lineup is super tough to strike out and they got big-time power,” Saints coach Nick Nardini said. “They just got bigger hits than we did. It’s just the name of the game. It can be contagious. But I tip my cap to them. They did a great job and my kids battled to the end, too.”

Neumann-Goretti still went down swinging, putting two runners on base in the seventh, but the Saints ran out of magic in the final frame.

“I got a young group and they’ve done everything I’ve challenged them to do to get the most out of them,” Nardini said. “I think we pushed the limits. It would be nice to win with a plaque in your hands but we just fell short to a really, really good team. They have just a busload of talent. Our guys gave it everything they had and I’m super proud of them.”

Senior Yariel Rodriguez (No. 12) is consoled by his Neumann-Goretti teammates after the Saints were defeated by La Salle, 6-2, in the Catholic League semifinal. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Neumann-Goretti finished up an 8-4 regular season PCL record before dominating Archbishop Wood, 10-3, on the road in the quarterfinal. There were plenty of great moments in addition to valuable teaching moments that could pay dividends as the Saints prepare for the state playoffs.

“This game didn’t go the way we wanted, but we still got states,” McCoach said. “We’re not done yet.”

Nardini, a former assistant coach at Neumann-Goretti who took over this season as head coach, agreed with his leadoff hitter.

Neumann-Goretti junior right fielder Andrew Dankanich makes a diving catch with two outs in the second inning to end a bases-loaded threat. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

“I told them we still have a chance to win our last baseball game,” Nardini said. “We qualified for states so it would still be nice to end on that note with a dog pile. I’d rather have tears of joy than tears of sadness.”

The sadness was a rare occurrence this season in a spring filled with true bonding and togetherness. It’s evident each time the Saints take the field.

“Neumann-Goretti is like no other,” McCoach said. “We all have a special brotherhood. No matter if we win or lose, at the end of the day, we’re all still best friends. You don’t get something like that at every school.”