FAIRLESS HILLS – It’s not every baseball team that can look back at a 6-12 season and say it was a successful campaign.
Conwell-Egan Catholic (CEC) is the exception, however.
After a 2-12 season in 2016, the Eagles returned to the diamond this year, went 5-11, then captured a District 12 Class 3A championship, the first since joining the PIAA in 2008-09. To boot, Egan came oh so close to turning in an upset win over District 3 runner-up Oley Valley in states.
With their top slugger and pitcher – senior Shane Souchuck – still nursing an orbital bone injury, the Eagles needed some of their younger players to step up.
And they did.
One of them was junior righthander Ryan Crowell. The 11th-grader pitched six innings in a 12-2 triumph over Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in the D12 championship and all seven frames in the team’s PIAA loss to OV, a team that went 18-3 before falling to D2 champ Holy Redeemer in the state quarterfinals.
In the D12 title tilt, Crowell pitched three scoreless frames after a big six-run, fifth-inning rally by the Eagles, before giving way to Souchuck.
“Ryan stepped in and did a really good job for us,” said second-year CEC head coach Scott Haws. “Having to step into the spot that Shane (Souchuck) departed was a big thing for him. And he rallied to the call.
“He gave us the momentum that we needed to reach our goal in the (district) title game and he pitched well in states.”
In the D12 championship game June 1 at Archbishop Wood, Egan took advantage of 15 walks, four hit batsmen and four throwing errors to topple the Rockets.
The battle was tied at 2-all entering the fifth inning when the Eagles pushed six runs across the plate on nary a hit to take a commanding 8-2 lead. Egan scored the six runs on eight walks – four of which came with the sacks jammed – an error, two hit batsmen and a pair of wild pitches.
Notching RBIs in the title tilt were Crowell, who had three, and sophomore Chris Furey, with two. Seniors Matt Costanzo and Patrick Brennan, juniors Brendan Sullivan and Noah Andress, freshman Connor Lowry also pushed runs across for the Eagles in the contest.
The Eagles notched just four hits in the game though one of them was an RBI double by Crowell.
“It was a tight game until the fifth and then it opened up for us,” said Haws. “Their pitchers got a little wild and we got more confident at the plate and everything just seemed to be working for us.
“Ryan was really our leader and go-to guy in the district title game. He really came through on both sides – both, on the mound and at the plate.”
Egan’s 2017 campaign started with plenty of promise. After outpacing neighboring Suburban One National League rival Harry S Truman 7-5 in the season opener, the Eagles looked like giant-killers when they sent two-time Catholic League champion Neumann-Goretti home with a 3-1 loss.
Souchuck – who notched a .166 ERA in the Philadelphia Catholic League (PCL) – led the way defensively, limiting the Saints to a single run on one hit in 6 and 1/3 innings of work.
Then, the losses started mounting, particularly in the PCL. Egan was outpaced in its next nine Catholic League contests, a streak that spanned all the way to May 10 when the Eagles crushed Bishop McDevitt 14-1.
“We struggled at some times this year and we played well in others. I wish we would have won a little more but we played a lot of close games,” said Haws.
“That’s just the nature of playing in the PCL. When you make a mistake, it gets capitalized on a lot more than when you are playing against schools your size.
“I thought we saw a lot of growth from the younger guys this year. They got to see some pitching that they probably hadn’t seen yet in their careers.”
The most significant loss this season came May 1 at Bonner-Prendy. The Friars outpaced Egan 9-3 and worse, Souchuck, a senior headed to Cabrini who was the leading hitter and pitcher at the time of the injury, took a line shot off his left eye socket.
An orbital blowout is what the doctor said and it required surgery, a plate, a few screws and a month before Shane was cleared to play again. With the A-OK coming from the doctors the morning of the D12 title tilt, Souchuck was still sporting a bandage under his eye when he took the hill in the seventh with his team ahead, 12-2.
After allowing a walk and striking out two batters, Souchuck induced a soft liner to first base to close out the first district title in the school’s history.
From there, the Eagles went to a PIAA opener against District 3 rival Oley Valley, a battle that began June 5 at Archbishop Wood and ended two days later at the same venue.
The Lynx entered the game with a 17-3 record.
“I don’t think we really knew much about Oley Valley and we don’t put too much into records,” said Haws. “You don’t know their talent level and the level they are playing against and I’m sure it’s the same way with us.”
“But they were a solid team and they could hit – they were gritty.”
Leadoff hitter Chris Furey scored three runs. Number three batter Bryce Trimble – a senior – stroked three RBI hits including a double while classmate Matt Costanzo – the cleanup hitter – ripped an RBI single.
The number five hitter, Zimmerman, went 3-for-4 that day including a double. His only out that day was a sinking line shot to left field that – on any other day – would have went for a two-run double.
With two outs and a pair of Eagles in scoring position, OV leftfielder Chris Kubitz raced in and made a diving catch for the final out and Egan went down in order in the seventh for a 6-5 loss.
“It was good to see Chris (Furey) break out in that game,” said Haws. “He had a really long year; he had to really grow up this season. Playing on the varsity level for the first time, he struggled. Once we were down playing at our level (Class AAA), he did well.”
Looking back, Egan will probably look at the state opener as the one that got away. The Eagles stranded nine runners, including eight in scoring position.
“We had plenty of opportunities, we just couldn’t cash in,” said Haws. “We left a lot of men on base and when we needed that extra clutch hit, we couldn’t get it.”
As a team, Egan saw plenty of growth over last season, said Haws.
“We came in late last year and we took some lumps,” said Haws. “This year, when we played against teams that were more on our level in our non-league schedule, we did a lot better and we played a lot closer in our PCL games against some of the bigger schools so it was definitely an upgrade over last year.
Next season will see the return of starters Crowell, Zimmerman, Andress and Furey so the Eagles have some talent returning. Still, they’ll have plenty of holes to fill with the departures of Souchuck, Trimble, Costanzo and pitcher Tommy Reilly, who stepped into the number two slot and performed well when Shane suffered his near season-ending injury.
NOTES: In 27 innings pitched, Souchuck limited opponents to six earned runs on just 12 hits with 28 strikeouts. His 1.66 ERA ranks fourth in the PCL.
TOP PHOTO: Conwell-Egan Catholic captured the first District 12 Championship in the school’s history with a 12-2 triumph over Science Leadership Academy June 1 at Archbishop Wood. (Stacy Souchuck/For 21st-Century Media)