Catholic Crusade

Junior starting pitcher and shortstop Dan Hammer has already verbally committed to the University of Pittsburgh. KEVIN COOK / FOR THE TIMES

A new baseball season in the Catholic League brings with it new alignment in the standings. While things remain inherently the same, there will be a new look to this always-stacked league … but will things be any different for Father Judge?

The Crusaders certainly hope so.

In past years, the Catholic League was split into two divisions — Red and Blue from 2008–14, and North and South prior to that. Team would play division rivals three times per season, while avoiding those on the other side until the playoffs; now, beginning this year, the Catholic League has consolidated itself into one division, meaning all teams will play one another once during the season.

The Crusaders have been a playoff team in seven of head coach Tim Ginter’s eight seasons, but haven’t had much elongated success beyond that. In fact, Judge hasn’t had a winning league mark since the team went 13–8 in 2007 — Ginter’s first season — but this is more a byproduct of how dynamite the league is as a whole than it is a detriment to the Crusaders’ overall talent level. Sure, the team has talent returning, but then again so does everyone else. So why do the Crusaders — off to a 3–1 overall start when the Times went to press — believe this season will take them down a new path, one that will lead them toward the top of the standings?

“I definitely do believe we have what it takes,” said senior first baseman/pitcher Ryan O’Neill, the team’s lone returning All-Catholic selection. “We’ve been pretty locked in over the summer break, and it wasn’t easy going out in the first round. Nobody wanted to. But I think we’re going to be successful, because we have very good pitching and now, collectively, we’ve got the experience. We bring 18 guys who are ready to play. So yeah, we will be one of the best in the league, in my opinion.”

Judge lost Tuesday’s league opener, 7–2, to Archbishop Wood, and will also play Carroll, Roman, Lansdale Catholic, Bonner-Prendie and defending champion Neumann-Goretti y the end of next week. By then, this team will have a better idea on where it stands, but there is reason for optimism.

In addition to O’Neill’s fearsome bat in the middle of the order, the Crusaders bring back junior shortstop/pitcher Dan Hammer, who has already verbally committed to the University of Pittsburgh. Hammer is expected to be Judge’s top starter, with senior Sam Naftulin falling into the second slot (while also playing at both middle infield spots) and O’Neill as the third once he gets over some early arm troubles.

In the lineup, O’Neill, Hammer and Naftulin should also be three of the team’s top hitters. Also in the mix to open up some eyes are junior catcher/outfielder Tom Penko and junior third baseman and returning starter Tim Ulrich. Ginter and his staff are still putting together the bottom of the order, but like the ability of the first five or six guys to put the bat on the ball, hit line drives and get on base. That, in addition to how the starting pitching holds up in a league so good, will dictate how far this Judge team is able to go.

“Where we’re going, we want to be mentioned in the same conversation with the Neumanns and La Salles, but we’re not quite there yet,” Ginter said after Judge thrashed Washington 10–0 on Saturday afternoon. “We want our pitchers to throw strikes, we want our hitters to win the on-base percentage battle and our fielders to dominate average play. We’ve done that in our first three games, but in order to get to where we want to be and become one of the more elite teams in the league, we have to do it on a daily basis.”

“I think the first few games have been very encouraging and we’re showing what we can accomplish,” added Hammer, pointing to his team outscoring opponents by a count of 31–1 so far. “We have a lot of guys back, guys who will show some real fight on a daily basis. We’ve got good chemistry with one another.”

Each year, Ginter sets the program’s goal: be a playoff team. However, he’s now taken it a step further.

“We want a home playoff game, something we haven’t had since 2011,” Ginter said. “I do think we have the components to get that game, get a win and make a run so long as a couple of things fall into place. A lot of that is them believing in themselves, making sure they never get too high or too low and, because there’s likely to be a few losses along the way, showing the ability to bounce back from one game to the next.”

Ginter and Hammer both pointed out last year’s Roman Catholic squad, which went 7–8 in 2014 and finished a game ahead of Judge in the Red Division. The Cahillites didn’t come into the season highly revered or regarded, but they were playing hot baseball at the right time and eliminated Wood, La Salle and O’Hara before falling to Neumann in the championship.

“I think the big ‘ifs’ for us are just everyone buying into the system and really believing in ourselves that we have what it takes to be that team,” Hammer said. “I think in past years, we’ve been intimidated by teams like La Salle, just putting them in another class and thinking we can’t play with them. I think now we’ve realized that we can, and once everyone believes that, the sky’s the limit.”

Added O’Neill: “We have some really good pitching to be excited about, so if we get some hot bats hitting at the right time, we’ll be right in the mix with everyone else if we come out fighting.”

Of course, predictions at this point in the season mean little to nothing. With the league slate ready to ramp up in a big way this week, it’s up to Judge to go out there and prove it.

“I think that Roman team from last year is a good frame of reference for us,” Ginter said. “I love the guys on this team. It’s a good group, and the guys that are back have that hunger that stems from losing in the first round. We’re fired up, and in the end, it all comes down to them believing in themselves. I think there’s a chance we have some parity in the league, I really do. There’s some talent on every team, but I like our pitching and our defense. As soon as we fill out the lineup and make it longer and deeper, it’s definitely possible for us to make a run and surprise some people.” ••

Follow Ed on Twitter @SpecialEd335

Senior first baseman Ryan O’Neill is an All-Catholic returnee for Judge. KEVIN COOK / FOR THE TIMES

Well-armed: Father Judge senior Sam Naftulin is one of several starting pitchers head coach Tim Ginter is excited about. Following an early playoff exit in 2014, Ginter and company are hoping to establish themselves as one of the vaunted teams atop the league standings. KEVIN COOK / FOR THE TIMES