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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – When Iona Prep and Stepinac meet on the baseball field, both teams know they have to come to play. The two CHSAA schools have a storied rivalry and every time they face off, fans from both communities come out in full force to root for their respective teams.
On Monday afternoon, Stepinac and Iona added a new chapter to their rivalry. The resilient Gaels fought off Stepinac’s second comeback of the game to defeat the Crusaders, 7-6, in one of the most exciting games of the season.
Iona Prep led by four runs in the fifth but Stepinac exploded for five runs in the bottom of the inning to take the lead. Iona Prep tied it in the sixth and took the lead again with two runs in the seventh, but needed a strong finishing effort from junior relief pitcher Vinny Martin to seal the victory.
“Every time Iona plays Stepinac, it’s a war,” said Iona Prep coach Fred Gallo. “It’s always a war. We jump out, they come back. Today we jumped back ahead of them, last time we didn’t. It was a good game, we played hard and the kids tried. That’s what high school baseball is all about; going forward and always giving it your best shot.”
Iona Prep jumped out to an early lead thanks to the strong pitching of senior Tim McCarthy. The Temple-bound righty was electric in the first four innings, notching six strikeouts and not giving up a run, but ran into trouble in the fifth.
With McCarthy pulled, Stepinac made its move. Brandon Soto sparked the five-run rally with a big double to drive in Chris Rooney. James Decker drove in two more runs with a single later in the inning.
However, Martin came in in relief and was able to get the Gaels out of the inning.
“That fifth inning, I didn’t really throw too many strikes,” McCarthy said. “But we kept our composure and everyone picked it up. Vinny really closed it out for us.”
Iona Prep tied the game in the sixth thanks to an RBI single by Vincent DeMaria. The Crusaders were unable to score in the bottom of the inning setting up an exciting, do-or-die seventh.
Mike Briganti drew a big walk to start the inning and then stole second and third to light a spark under the Gaels. This allowed Bill Martin to give Iona Prep the lead with a Sac Fly to right field and then Christian Berg added what would be the game-winning run by taking home on a passed ball.
“You have to give these kids credit, they didn’t give up,” Gallo said. “We had Timmy McCarthy firing away and all of a sudden we’re losing. For some teams that’s the end of it, but we pulled it out.”
The Crusaders had one last final shot to tie it in the bottom of the inning and almost did thanks to their relentless effort. Decker led off the inning with a single and, after two strike-outs by Martin, was driven in on a ground rule double by Frank Giuliano.
Rooney then came to the plate with the game on the line and hit an absolute line-drive rocket it up the middle of the infield. However, Martin quickly reacted and made an impressive, momentum carrying grab to end the game.
“We played good defense and really settled down after that fifth inning,” Martin said. “It feels great to get my team a win and help out in any way that I can.”
Despite the loss, Stepinac pitcher Christian Huertas threw a complete game and kept the Crusaders in it at times. Huertas had six strike-outs and gave up only three earned runs but the Stepinac defense struggled to give him the support he needed to win the game.
“We’re young and we’ve been making silly, stupid mistakes the entire year,” said Stepinac coach Pat Duffy. “But today we really broke the record. We made some youthful mistakes and that was the difference in the game. Christian pitched well, we had a few key hits, but we gave up three runs on really bad errors and lost by one run. That was the key. We’re going to need to correct that kind of stuff quickly (for the upcoming playoffs).”