Coming into the season, Chuck Kelley heard it from more than a few people.
The consensus opinion was the Father Judge High School baseball team, which won all but one game last year during the Catholic League regular season, would struggle this year because the Crusaders were without the services of all-everything pitcher Dan Hammer.
Hammer was a dominate pitcher, but now he’s throwing at the University of Pittsburgh. His departure left quite a void.
That’s why Kelley put in extra effort.
Instead of talking about the Crusaders’ problem of not having an ace, Kelley became one. And ever since coach Kenny Devenney told him he was their man, things have been going quite well.
“I didn’t know coming into the season that I was going to be (the ace of the Crusaders’ staff) and right before it started, I found out,” Kelley said. “I think I’m doing well because my velocity is up. I’m throwing 86 or 87 (mph), my fastball has really improved.”
Whatever he’s doing, it’s working.
Kelley is 4–2 on the season en route to helping the Crusaders to a 5–2 record in Catholic League play. The junior hurler has a 2.01 earned run average and after some early-season jitters, he’s now confident every time he takes the field.
A lot of that is because of what he’s done. It also helps that he had a great role model.
“I learned a lot from Dan Hammer,” Kelley said. “He was a great pitcher. I would watch him and learn things, but he was very helpful. Whenever I had a question, he would help me. It was good to be around someone as good as him.”
Obviously, being the top pitcher made Kelley very happy, but he’s also happy just being on the field.
Last year, right as the season was getting started, Kelley broke his wrist, which put him on the sidelines for the first half of the season.
“I was running and fell,” the Winchester Park native said. “It was tough. After I got back, I played JV but got called up after we got into the playoffs. It was hard coming back. It wasn’t my throwing arm, it was my left hand. But still, it was tough to come back.”
While Kelley didn’t see a great deal of time on the varsity squad, he was around as the Crusaders took first place in the Catholic League during the regular season, which means he gained valuable experience as Judge took part in the Catholic League playoffs, the District 12 AAAA championship game and the state playoffs.
The downside was the Crusaders went 0–3 after their terrific regular season.
“Losing, especially in the first round, was tough for everyone because we thought we were better,” Kelley said. “We were better. I think we just didn’t play well. We could have played a lot better and won.”
Going 0-for-3 in the playoffs was bad for last year, but it was a valuable lesson.
It was also a motivator for this year.
“I think it showed us that we can lose, but we have a really good team this year so we should do better this year,” Kelley said. “It was hard for the seniors, but I think it helped us. The guys who are back know what we have to do.”
Kelley’s pitching success has a lot to do with his strong arm and his strong work ethic. But it helps that he loves the game. In fact, when he’s not playing baseball, he’s helping others learn the game.
“I work out at Sluggersville and I help out with the little kids,” Kelley said. “I also help coach a team, the Philadelphia Royals, with an assistant coach from St. Joe’s Prep. I just help in any way.
“I think you can learn a lot by coaching. It gives you a different perspective. You’re not doing, you’re watching.”
Now he just wants to watch his team celebrate after winning a championship.
The Catholic League is stacked this year, so it won’t be easy, but as Kelley discovered last year, anything can happen in the playoffs.
“I do think we can win,” Kelley said. “I think we have the players to win. There are a lot of good teams, but I think we’re one of them. If we keep getting better as a team, we have a chance at winning the championship.” ••