Holy Ghost Prep riding into districts with momentum of BAL co-title triumph

BENSALEM — Taking things one game at a time may sound clichéd, but for Holy Ghost Prep, it is the theme heading into the postseason.

With the single-loss elimination format of the District I Class AAA playoffs, the Firebirds have no choice but to take each contest with equal seriousness and intensity. They have the talent and experience to do so, and after rallying to knock off Devon Prep by a 7-6 score at home May 11, the momentum is in their favor to make a run at some championship hardware.

“We’re looking forward to it. They’re mature, they’re talented and we’re ready to go,’ Holy Ghost head coach Keith Smeraglio said. “We’ll put our best foot forward and from now on, it’s one and done. You have to keep winning.’

“At this point, it’s execution,’ he continued. “Who can execute under pressure?’

The Firebirds went head on against Devon. After jumping out to a 2-0 edge, Holy Ghost yielded a five-run fifth inning to the Tide. That spelled the end of senior Curtis Staropoli, who got the start on the mound and was pulled for reliever Nolan Jones.

The offense responded for Jones with a three-run bottom frame to even the score, and in the following inning, the Firebirds pulled ahead with another pair of runs. The Tide did get within a run in the top of the seventh, but Jones closed things out to earn his third win on the hill thus far.

Jones was also key at the plate, as he started in the three-hole and went 3-for-4 from the leadoff spot. Starting second baseman Tim Brennan, who also pitches, was also 3-for-4 and drove in three runs in the victory.

“It was also a test of character to see if we can come back when we’re down against a good team,’ said Brennan, who also plays second base and will be pitching for St. Joseph’s University next year. He is currently sporting a 0.81 earned-run average this season and batting .444 with 17 RBI.

“We needed a big game out of someone,’ Brennan added. “I just really wanted to step up and make a few big plays to get us started and help the team win.’

The victory over the Tide avenged an 8-6 setback at Devon on April 30, in which Brennan took the loss and the Firebirds admittedly came in with the wrong attitude. They fell behind, 7-0, in that contest before a late rally came up short.

This time around, Holy Ghost completed the comeback. The Firebirds improved to 13-1 in the Bicentennial Athletic League (BAL) with the win, giving them a share of the BAL Independence Division title with the Tide. They did fall, 8-5, in their regular season finale a day later against Council Rock South, but will still go into the playoffs with a 17-3 mark.

“We started to get our bats going. We got our defense together,’ Jones said of the Devon victory. “That was huge. Going into playoffs, we know they’re a great team.’

“It was really important,’ he continued. “We won it last year and we have 14 seniors, so it means a lot to them.’

Holy Ghost is seeded first in the Class AAA bracket and earned the only bye as a result, meaning they won’t have to play until the semifinal round May 21 against the winner of the Bishop Shanahan and Upper Moreland quarterfinal tussle.

“That was an important win at this time of the season. We had lost to them and we made that a goal,’ Smeraglio said.

“They’re really talented and we’re deep in pitching,’ he added. “I think the depth in pitching is really our strength.’

With Jones, a junior who has verbally committed to play at the University of Virginia, and Brennan, the Firebirds would have a dynamic duo to send at any playoff opponent. But there is much more, as another senior in Luke Duris has been solid on the mound and in the outfield and is set to play at Villanova University next year. Classmate Nick Payesko usually plays at first base, but is also part of the rotation and headed to Rider University. Staropoli rounds out the quality arms, and all five of the pitchers can contribute at other positions when not on the mound.

That fact has made the Firebirds even stronger. Most of the starters are capable of playing at least two spots in the field, allowing Smeraglio to shuffle the lineup and positions depending on who is pitching without sacrificing defense.

“It goes from one to nine in the lineup and one to five in the pitching staff,’ Jones said. “Every guy contributes. This team has it all.’

“My strength is commanding my fastball and getting ahead of hitters,’ added Jones. “The best thing about this team is if I throw strikes and let them put the ball in play, I know the guys will make the plays.’

Lehigh University commit Ryan Malloy teams with Payesko at either cleanup or fifth in the batting order and will be playing shortstop, third base and/or outfield in districts. Ben Decembrino figures to bat second, while centerfielder John Naylor bats seventh. Senior Chris Pawluczyk will handle the catching and the nine-hole, while the other outfield spots will be filled by either Duris, Drew Petri or Pete Oline.

“I feel like it helps a lot because it especially creates some flexibility,’ Brennan said about players being able to start at multiple positions. “You can kind of ride the hot hand a little bit.’

If there are several players in a groove at the plate, the stage could be set for a run at the district and, possibly, state title. There is plenty of experience and motivation in their favor, as in each of the past two seasons, the Firebirds saw their season end at the hand of the eventual state champion. In 2013, it came in the second round of states to West York, while last year, they were stunned in the district quarterfinals by Pope John Paul II.

If things work in both teams’ favor, Holy Ghost could find itself in a rematch with Pope John Paul for the district title and the lone state berth on May 27.

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