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Crusaders took everyone on fun ride

The Crusaders are the state champions, but they were a great team long before the season began. PHOTO: Dave Picariello

Most went down the shore.

The Crusaders went down in history.

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While most graduates were sunning themselves on the Wildwood beach, the Father Judge High School baseball team took a trip across Pennsylvania to play in the state championship and, in the process, became the first Father Judge baseball team to win a state championship. In fact, it’s just the second team state championship in school history.

The run to the state championship started long before April. In fact, it started long before 2020, when the world was shut down due to COVID and the seniors on this year’s championship squad were learning the ropes of high school.

This team started coming together when most of the guys were 8 years old.

The Liberty Bell team, which was coached by Crusaders assistant coach Barry Kneedler, included Liam Newhouse, Nick Shiffler, Sean Moore, Jaden DeLuca, Ryan Biener and David Rodriguez.

Once they got to Judge, the circle got wider.

Some knew each other before. Declan Foy went to school with Biener and Shiffler so he was immediately one of the boys.

The foundation was in place, but once they met up with their new teammates at Judge, the foundation only got stronger.

Coach Mike Metzger was the perfect coach for the job, and since this crew arrived, the Judge baseball team has been a force.

But this year was different.

This year, Judge ran roughshod through the Catholic League until its final game of the season when it had everything wrapped up.

The Crusaders then plowed through the Catholic League again en route to winning the first baseball crown in more than 20 years.

Things only got harder.

After winning the District 12 championship, Judge entered the state playoffs, where it won back-to-back-to-back games against District One teams Plymouth Whitemarsh, Central Bucks West and North Penn. None of those games were easy, and Central Bucks West proved to be a very tough test, but it was nothing compared to what was waiting for them at Penn State.

There, the Crusaders ran into David Shields, a sophomore pitcher who has already committed to Miami. He is one of the best pitchers in the state and all year he baffled opponents. He was great against Judge, too. Only problem for Mount Lebanon, while he was still an elite pitcher, on the day, he was the second-best pitcher in the game.

Rodriguez also did what he’s done his entire career.

The two-time Catholic League Pitcher of the Year kept Mount Lebanon off balance all day. And just as he was running out of bullets per PIAA rules, he got the final out and the Crusaders were able to start celebrating.

But the unique part of this team is its popularity.

Any Northeast Philly team that gets hot will get the support of its school.

You don’t have to look very hard to see Judge guys sporting their colors on regular days, and if you’ve been on social media or hung out with any former Crusaders, you’ll hear and see the sense of pride alumni has for this team.

That’s natural.

What’s unique is this team wasn’t just loved by those who routinely wear baby blue.

“The amount of support and love that we got from the neighborhood and school and friends, family, old coaches, alumni, it really was unbelievable,” said Judge shortstop Brooks Henderson. “We couldn’t have done it without them. Instagram shouting people out, spreading news about games. Once people realized we were legit, everyone supported us.

“I had friends down in Wildwood, every bar had our game livestreamed. It goes to show we had so much love and support. The parents took a whole bus up. Like 60 of them on a bus to go 3 1/2 hours away. That’s not easy for people. Crammed, crowded, and they didn’t think about it. Sean Moore’s mom instantly bought a bus.

“We get home at 11 p.m. at night and there were 100 people from the neighborhood. Our family was behind us, it was just people from the neighborhood coming to see us. We were so surprised. Little kids who were asking for autographs. We’re not superstars, we’re signing balls after the game, little brothers and cousins are coming up. The amount of love and support was crazy, and we couldn’t have done it without them.”

Most of what Henderson said is true. But the love and support wasn’t just because the team won a state championship. It helped that this team was loved and respected by everyone they came in contact with. It was just a good group of dudes who loved playing baseball together.

“This was by far the most fun team I’ve ever coached top to bottom,” Metzger said. “Most cooperative and dedicated. When I gave them a day off they seemed disappointed, they wanted to play every day and be around each other.

“Every kid on this team cares about each other. I always said they’re friends before teammates, they hang out, they play baseball, they go to school. Most have known each other since they were 8 or 9. It’s like a culture.”

They win with class, and no matter how much success they have, they stay humble.

Even after winning the largest state championship in the state, the boys were the same Sunday after the game as they were Friday before it.

But make no mistake, ask anyone on this team, to the insanely stingy starting pitching, to the great players in the field, to the ones driving in the runs, this was a team championship.

“From being 8 years old together to winning three championships, can’t ask for a better ending than that,” Shiffler said.

Sounds like the perfect senior week to me.

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