PHILADELPHIA – Last year’s Catholic League championship offered one of the scariest moments imaginable.
Archbishop Wood catcher John “J.R.” Gifford was hit in the neck by a bouncing pitch. At first just woozy, Gifford would collapse moments later and need an ambulance to exit Immaculata University’s immaculate baseball facility.
Fortunately, Gifford was medically cleared shortly thereafter, but watching him fall to the ground and lay motionless while a crowd of stunned teammates, coaches, and patrons looked on helplessly will forever be emblazoned in their collective minds.
“I definitely do reflect on it,” said Gifford, a senior. “It happened. It was really scary. There’s not much more to say. It doesn’t affect me.”
That’s why Gifford’s accomplishments this week provided a reminder that sometimes, good news follows ominous occurrences.
In a span of 48 hours, Gifford launched key home runs that helped propel the Vikings to a pair of victories. The first, on April 30, was easily the most memorable because it keyed a 5-4 win against the team that beat Wood in last year’s Catholic League final, Neumann-Goretti.
Trailing 4-1 in the bottom of the sixth, Gifford sent a fastball over the center-field fence for a three-run homer that tied the game. In the bottom of the seventh, junior Antonio Rossillo’s sacrifice fly clinched the win.
“Every time we play Neumann, it’s an intense, hard-fought game,” said Gifford. “We definitely wanted revenge, so yeah, that home run was special.
“When I got knocked out of the championship, I wasn’t able to contribute, wasn’t able to help us win. That bothered me then and probably always will.”
In a 16-10 slugfest win over St. Joseph’s Prep two days later, Gifford connected once again with his fourth homer of the season, another three-run job to give the Vikings a 9-6 lead.
The Hawks rebounded by scoring four in the top of the sixth to move ahead, 10-9, but the Vikings created the fifth lead change of the game when they scored seven in the bottom of the sixth.
“It was a crazy game,” said Gifford. “Sometimes that happens when both teams go back and forth. I was glad to be one of many who helped us get that win.”
Archbishop Carroll handed La Salle its first loss, 5-4, stunning the visiting Explorers with five runs in the bottom of the sixth inning. Not only did junior Tyler Kehoe win the game in relief of senior Jake Kelchner (12 strikeouts), he also knocked in two runs, including the game-winner via an infield single after fouling off two pitches down 0-2 in the count.
“I just shortened up and tried to square one up and get the ball in play and make them make a play on it, which fortunately they could not,” said Kehoe. “I wouldn’t have been put in that position if it weren’t for my team. Getting that winning run across the plate is the best feeling, especially when you get to celebrate it with a great group of guys. Getting the win on the mound wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the great defense I have behind me when I’m on the mound, and that’s why we win games.”
#17 Archbishop Carroll senior Jake Kelchner - PSD Photo by Kathy Leister
In a 7-6 win over Conwell-Egan, the Patriots scored two in the home seventh. Kelchner led off with a double. Senior Chris Grill (two RBI) tied the game with another double and advanced to third on a groundout, setting the stage for sophomore Trent Pierce’s walk-off single to left field.
“There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to win that game,” said Pierce. “I was just trying to find a good pitch to drive. Luckily I got a good pitch to hit. It was a great feeling. We had a lot of clutch hits at the end of the game and we were all super pumped to get that win.”
A loss would have been considered a major upset considering Conwell-Egan is 2-8 and struggling mightily just to finish 10th so they can advance to the first round of the playoffs while Carroll is 7-2 and still alive for a regular-season title.
“We started the game with no energy and they obviously came ready to play,” said sophomore Max Hitman, who knocked in two runs. “They took a good lead early on. Luckily our bats started to come alive later on when it mattered most.”
Carroll’s most recent loss was to Father Judge. The 7-3 Crusaders upended the Patriots, 3-1, behind a complete-game, 10-strikeout beauty by senior Chuck Kelley.
“It definitely means more, especially with Carroll coming in off of huge wins against La Salle and Archbishop Wood,” said Kelley. “I knew I would have to be mentally ready for a team of their caliber. That’s all I thought about all day is what I can do to beat them, and as soon as I got out there I knew it was my day.”
Roman Catholic surprised Archbishop Wood, 13-4, to raise its record to 6-4 while dropping the red-hot Vikings to 8-2. Sophomore Jeff Rosenblum dominated on the mound while junior teammates Sean Flanagan and Anthony LoMastro each contributed three runs batted in.
“It felt so good to stop a team like that, especially a one-seed,” said Rosenblum. “We gave it everything we had, and if we keep it up, we can be scary. I just gave my everything and tried to put my team in the best position to win.”
Sophomore Gaetan Grandelli added two hits and a walk, and he stole home in the first inning.
“Our mindset throughout the rest of the year is we’re the underdogs in every game we play,” said Grandelli. “We show up to the field before every game knowing what the other teams are thinking – ‘We play Roman today. Let’s have a stat day,’ or they’ll say, ‘Let’s take it easy today.’ Throughout the rest of the year we’re just trying to prove everyone wrong and show our passion for baseball.”
A few days earlier, another Cahillite, sophomore Jason Kelly, played hero in huge fashion. Roman and St. Joseph’s Prep were deadlocked at 4-4 in the home seventh. With runners at first and second, Kelly belted a three-run homer over the left-center-field fence to give the Cahillites a stunning 7-4 victory.
“It was great,” said Kelly. “That whole game I was seeing mostly all breaking balls so I knew I wasn’t going to see a fastball. When I was batting I was thinking that just a little single would get the runner home because we had a speedy runner (Grandelli) on second.
“The count was 0-2 and I saw two straight curveballs and I knew he was going to throw it again, so it happened to break right down the middle and I just tried to hit the ball hard. It was my first walk-off and it is something I’ll never forget. A walk-off homerun is what every baseball player dreams of.”
Jason’s senior brother John Kelly, who earlier this year stroked a two-run, walk-off single to defeat Archbishop Ryan, 6-5, was thrilled for his younger brother.
“If felt great because he’s worked hard for what he’s getting now,” he said. “It honestly was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen him do.”
(John Knebels can be reached at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)
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