Luke Blair was looking for a little more excitement when he asked to move to catcher. The Ewing resident got his wish, and his baseball teams have reaped the rewards of his seamless transition from outfield to catcher.
“The one reason I wanted to be catcher is it was really boring in the outfield,” Blair said. “Not a lot comes to you. I think the most difficult thing is to do your homework on the team you’re playing, make sure you know what to call and what works. I was able to do that through districts because I know a lot of the kids. And you have to use your body as a wall. Sometimes you wear down, but you have to go home and get your rest and come back ready.”
Blair, who picked up plenty of knowledge on area hitters as sophomore starting catcher last spring for The Pennington School, came back plenty ready game after game over the summer. He helped the Ewing/Hopewell Babe Ruth League 15-year-old all-star team advance to the Southern New Jersey tournament for the second straight year after they captured their second straight District One championship.
“I think last year there was a lot more drama behind it,” Blair said of the district title. “It was my first year on the team last year. Everyone was still getting acclimated with each other. This year, we went in with the mindset of, ‘Let’s win the district.’ It was a real satisfying feeling when it happened.”
Blair played a critical role in the Ewing/Hopewell summer run that finally ended with a 6-3 championship game loss to defending Babe Ruth World Series champion Atlantic Shore in the state tournament July 15. It was their second loss to Atlantic Shore in the tournament.
“In 14 innings, we had two bad innings against them,” said Ewing/Hopewell manager John Scaccetti. “We were right there in both games and gave them a run for their money.
“I think what it proved is District One has some great baseball, especially Ewing/Hopewell. We didn’t have to prove anything to ourselves. We knew how good we were.”
Ewing/Hopewell Valley captured the District One title with an 8-2 win over Hamilton on June 27. Ed Chmara backed his own pitching with a two-run single in Ewing/Hopewell’s six-run first inning. Last year, it took the if-game of the championship for Ewing/Hopewell to win the Babe Ruth 14s title over Hamilton.
“Confidence is the difference,” Scaccetti said. “They know they belong this year and they know they can play with anybody around. Last year was huge for this group of kids. They had never won a tournament before last year’s districts. The confidence and knowledge that they are that good and as good as I knew they could be was there.”
This year’s 15s team consisted of: Ewing residents Tyrique Alston, Blair, Dakota Ditmars, Henry Hutchinson and Anthony Yarson; plus Hopewell players Drew Brodine, Chmara, Ryan Coughlin, William Haynes, Dylan Joyce, Marc Porpora, Kyle Randazzo, Robbie Rose, Grayson Russo and Anthony St. John.
“The chemistry of the team has added a lot,” Blair said. “It’s most of the team’s third year, my second year. We know our tendencies and weaknesses.”
Not every player was a returnee from last year’s district champions. Russo, Hutchinson, St. John and Haynes were additions to this year’s team that combines players from Ewing and Hopewell.
“We’ve had no issues whatsoever,” Scaccetti said. “These kids have gelled and come together. They’re good friends on and off the field.”
The only disappointment for Ewing/Hopewell was that it couldn’t return to the Mid-Atlantic Regional. The only team to beat it during the Babe Ruth tournament season was Atlantic Shore. Ewing/Hopewell opened the state tournament at Moody Park with a 10-0 win over Point Pleasant. They stopped Mercer East, 13-1, in their second game before running into Atlantic Shore for the first time in a game that was close for six innings before Ewing/Hopewell lost, 9-3.
Ewing/Hopewell started its summer run with a 1-0 win over its toughest district foe, Hamilton, in its District One opener. Coughlin laid down a bunt and Joyce scored ahead of the throw in the seventh inning for a hard-fought win that set the tone.
“That was really important,” Blair said. “If we lost, we’d have had to come back against a dangerous Nottingham team. It was a big game because it was the first game that meant something to us. It kind of signifies what we’re about—we’ll stay with you the whole game and we’ll get you in the end… if we don’t get you earlier. We were happy to be able to pull out the victory and move on.”
The bats roared to life in an 11-1 win over Mercer East in the second game of the districts, and they made sure they weren’t pushed to an if-game when they stopped Hamilton again in the championship to earn the district crown. Ewing/Hopewell would have advanced anyway as the hosts of the state tournament, but the group still wanted a championship.
“Just coming out with the title of District One champs, they always have a good background, so we take it with honor,” Blair said. “That title gives us nothing but confidence. We’re hoping to carry that through states and into regionals.
“We really earned it this time. It’s not just given to us. We didn’t want to get there just because we’re the hosts. We wanted to get there because we won the district and earned it. That’s what pushed us. It showed we’re the real deal.”
Blair helped the cause with his bat, which stayed hot from start to finish of the tournament, and his glove as he caught and gave the standout pitching staff confidence in any pitch they threw.
“I think our pitching staff has improved since last year,” Blair said. “Basically we have the same pitchers as last year. I think they did a lot of work over the winter. Also the addition of Tony St. John, he’s a 14 playing up on 15s, and he’s a great pitcher with a great breaking ball and can really blow it by you at any point.
“Our pitching staff is unbelievable,” he added. “I love our pitchers to death. All of them have good fastballs that they can blow by people. Their off-speed works to bigger hitters. They trust me and I trust them on the mound. If that keeps going we’ll be looking good in the future.”
Blair was named to the all-tournament team for District One along with St. John, Joyce, Chmara, Brodine, Rose, Yarson and Ditmars. They were scheduled to play in the Babe Ruth all-star game July 22. Blair kept his play at a high level during the state tournament.
“Luke calls his own game back there,” Scaccetti said. “He’s fearless throwing his body in front of the ball to block it. He has an absolute cannon as an arm. You wouldn’t believe it was his first year catching last year.”
Scaccetti helped to give Blair a chance at his new position. Former Pennington head coach Mike Coryell and he were talking about candidates for Coryell, who was looking to groom a back-up catcher for a Pennington senior.
“Luke was on my rec team for Babe Ruth, and every rec game last year, he asked, ‘Coach, can I catch? Coach can I catch?’ Scaccetti recalled. “I had a player go on vacation and I needed a catcher and had Luke take over and he was good.”
Blair has only gotten better at the position the more that he has played, and he has poured his energy into studying the position and the hitters so he can call his own game. At the same time, playing high school has helped his bat at the Legion level.
“It’s definitely tougher playing against PGs and 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds, it’s a transition to hit it,” Blair said. “I also played against some freshmen and other sophomores and I was able to see what pitches they like for districts. It’s a good thing to keep aware of. During school ball, it’ll always help you during summer.”
Blair had two of Ewing/Hopewell’s three hits in their 9-3 loss to Atlantic Shore in the winner’s bracket final. The game was 2-2 when Blair tripled and Rose drove him home for a short-lived 3-2 lead in the fifth inning. Atlantic Shore scored seven runs in the seventh.
Ewing/Hopewell did not have time to put its head down after the loss, and they didn’t. They bounced back with an 8-3 win over Hamilton. They jumped all over their district rivals with seven runs in the first inning to support the pitching of St. John, who pitched a no-hitter through the first four innings, and Coughlin, who came in to close out the game.
The win set up a rematch with Atlantic Shore in the championship with Ewing/Hopewell having to win two games to win the state tournament to advance. Even without that happening, Ewing/Hopewell leaves knowing it’s among the top squads in the region.
“They were as hungry this year as they were last year,” Scaccetti said. “The success they had last year really fueled their fire for more. They took to winning like fish to water.”