Cole Hare in action for Hopewell Valley this season. (Photo by Mike Schwartz/mikeschwartz.photo.)

It should not have been a surprise that Hopewell Post 339 won its first six games in the Mercer County American Legion League this summer.

With eight key players from what could arguably be considered the greatest baseball team in Hopewell Valley Central High School history, success just seemed to naturally carry over from spring to summer.

“It’s great to see them playing Legion, and they’re successful too, which is always good,” Bulldogs coach Ken Harrison said. “They’re playing meaningful games and getting a lot of game reps, which is what I want from my players over the summer.”

Those players include Dylan Joyce, Andy Blake, Tony St. John, Drew Brodine, Mike Savas, Cole Hare, Mark Porpora and Kenny Tagliareni, who all played roles in HVCHS’ 25-3 record and first Mercer County Tournament championship. The Bulldogs set a school mark for wins, breaking the 2016 standard of 23, and will be talked about as the school’s best of all time along with the 1977 state championship team and a few others.

After going to the American Legion World Series last year, Post 339 is talking about doing it again as some talented HVCHS graduates return and several Pennington players join the 2018 Bulldogs’ nucleus.

“I think (the World Series) is everyone’s focus,” said Hare, who is in legion for the first time after playing travel ball. “We can compete with any team, we’re coming in here confident. We’ve got a lot of returning guys. We’re adding some new pieces like me and Tony (St. John) and some other kids from last year and some new kids from Pennington. It’s just a good mix. We feel we have all the talent in the world to get back there. We’re looking forward to it.”

Not before looking back on the high school season, which ended with a disappointing 3-1 loss to top-seeded Wall in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III semifinals. The game was played three days after an emotionally super-charged, 4-2 win over Nottingham in the MCT championship game May 26.

The Most Improved Award went to Mike Savas, who hit .382 with a team-high 14 walks but was even more valuable as a catcher.

Hopewell had never gotten to the finals until 2017, where it lost 2-0 to Allentown. But with Blake outdueling Nick Houghton in a battle county studs, school history was made at Hamilton’s DeMeo Field. The Northstars put the tying runs on in the seventh before a ground-out ended it.

“It was like there was a big pain in my chest,” Hare recalled. “I was getting all nervous, and then that last out happens, it turns into joy and happiness. You look up in the stands, see all the fans, all the parents who’ve been there since day one. You see all your teammates who you grew up with. As a senior it’s a really great experience. We lost last year, getting back there and winning it is complete joy and happiness, smiles and laughing and just a good time.”

For Harrison, it put a lot of disappointments to rest.

“It was unbelievable,” the veteran coach said. “Sometimes I think it’s tougher to win the county title than it is to win a sectional because of all the great teams you have in Mercer County. I’ve had a lot of great teams and great players. We got close but we never could get the job done. When we got back to the final, I thought it was our tournament to win.”

Hopewell entered the season with numerous new faces, having lost six starters to graduation. But an outstanding pitching performance by Blake in a 9-1 season-opening win over Notre Dame set the tone for a 14-0 start.

“Honestly, I really didn’t know what we were capable of,” said Hare, who will play at Dickinson College next year. “Seeing we could beat a team like Notre Dame early on gave us a lot of confidence. Young guys stepped up, everyone produced at a really high level.”

Hare, who played sparingly last season, hit .289 with 17 RBI, and earned the team’s Leadership Award.

“When we first started tryouts, Cole was a man on a mission,” Harrison said. “He brought an air of confidence on the team, and it was contagious. He could do a lot of things well. He had a great eye, a tough out with two strikes. He started a lot of rallies for us. When something needed to be said in the dugout he pulled the guys in to say it.”

Blake, who will be a post-graduate at Hun, was named Most Valuable Player after leading the team in average (.406), hits (39), runs (34) and extra-base hits (17). In his first season of high school pitching, Blake went 7-1 with a 1.10 ERA and 41 strikeouts against just 11 walks.

“Andy was one of the best big-game pitchers that I’ve ever coached,” Harrison said. “Any time there was a big game this year, he pitched and he was fantastic. He’s a competitor, he has the make-up to be a number one. He doesn’t get rattled or fazed by anything. He’s just focused and coming at you.”

The Dedication and Commitment Award went to Brodine (.376, 25 RBI), who drove in HoVal’s first run in the MCT final and delivered a two-run, walk-off single in a 3-2 win over Hamilton in the regular season. Brodine will play at Scranton University next year.

“Drew was steady as can be,” Harrison said. “He was the guy who could strike out twice and his third at-bat, with the game on line, he would come up and get a big hit. And there was nobody better at first base than Drew.”

The Most Improved Award went to Savas, who hit .382 with a team-high 14 walks but was even more valuable as a catcher.

“He grew as a player as much as anyone I’ve ever seen,” Harrison said. “He wanted to be the catcher this year. Last year he started some games and the situation might have been too big for him. At the beginning of the year, we said he had everything to gain and nothing to lose. So he just went out and played and whatever happened, happened. He was great defensively, throwing out runners, blocking balls, handling the pitching staff.”

It was a talented staff to handle, with Blake, St. John (6-1, 1.21) and Joyce (5-0, 1.14) the starters. Hare won two of three starts, while Jason Greenzang (1-1) logged substantial innings. Only Hare and Joyce had had varsity experience.

“They did an outstanding job,” Harrison said. “They threw strikes, didn’t walk a lot of guys. We played pretty good defense all year, and any time you can get good pitching and good defense you always have a chance to win.”

Other offensive contributors were Haynes (.354), Cleary (.363, team-high 13 doubles and 26 RBI), Porpora (.306), Greenzang (.297), Grayson Russo (.316) and Tagliareni, who had 19 RBI on 16 hits for a hard .250 average.

With all that talent playing together in the summer, its safe to say Post 339 knows how to win. “We get that culture from Harrison,” Hare said. “The Pennington guys like to win too. They’re always competitive whenever we play them. It’s a culture in this area. You’re brought up to win. We don’t like losing.”

And they don’t lose much.