There were those who felt that Tony St. John sneaked up on teams and just appeared out of nowhere last year, when he went 6-1 with a 1.21 ERA for the Hopewell Valley Central High baseball team.

But St. John felt he had been there all along.

“I thought since my freshman and sophomore year I was as good as everyone else,” said the senior right-hander. “It didn’t surprise me. Andy (Blake) and I were going back and forth for the number one spot all year. I knew when I pitched a complete game, (four-hit) shutout against Steinert earlier in the year, that’s when everyone realized I could be actually be up here. I always thought I was that good. That’s when I had the evidence, I guess, as opposed to just saying it.”

‘Last year we knew we were gonna get a special player. I think he kind of snuck up on everyone else, but we knew what we had.’

St. John’s only loss was to Wall in the Central Jersey Group III finals, and he followed the high school season by going 7-0 for Hopewell Post 339 in American Legion play.

“I might have been better in the legion season,” he said. “I had a lot more strikeouts in the same innings pitched.”

This year he was 2-0 in three starts through Hopewell’s 7-2 start, having forged a 1.47 ERA with 13 strikeouts in 19 innings. After he threw a two-hitter against Nottingham, coach Ken Harrison hoped the rest of his pitching staff had paid close attention because “he put on a clinic.”

Like St. John, the skipper also knew he was getting a talented player last season.

“As a JV player he threw a lot of innings for us,” Harrison said. “We knew he had the potential. It was just a matter of time before he matured a little bit and was ready for the varsity level. Last year we knew we were gonna get a special player. I think he kind of snuck up on everyone else, but we knew what we had. This year we asked him to come out and be the ace. Every time he comes out we know we have a chance to win.”

Despite his whiff-happy summer, St. John does not consider himself a strikeout hurler. Last year he got by with a fastball and curveball and this season, he has learned to throw his change-up for a strike and will mix it in when necessary.

“I’m a contact pitcher,” he said. “We have a good defense. I’m good at throwing to locations. I can’t overpower anybody. So, when you know that; there’s no point throwing your hardest. You just have to put it in spots.”

St. John started in right field for the Hopewell Valley Cal Ripken All-Star team but it didn’t take long for a manager to notice his arm and move him to the mound. St. John helped his 10-year-old team to the Cal Ripken World Series, “where we finished fourth or fifth” and he won one game.

Tony felt pitching on such a big stage at a young age helped his growth.

“It just makes you feel like you’re better than the other team,” he said. “When you have confidence it makes it easier.”

His confidence shone through last year when he and Blake helped pitch the Bulldogs to their first Mercer County Tournament title in program history. With Andy now a post-graduate at Hun, St. John is the ace.

“It feels good, knowing that everyone depends on me,” he said. “I mean, every pitcher feels that way. But it feels good that coach is lining me up against the best teams we’re gonna play.”

Harrison considers St. John and Dylan Joyce One-A and One-B as far as starters, but added that, “We’re gonna lean on him a lot. He’s gonna get a lot of tough assignments. He’s got a really sharp curveball and his change-up is a really good pitch.”

Not only that, but he is a Bulldog with a bulldog mentality on the mound.

“His demeanor doesn’t change,” Harrison said. “He’s very intense internally, and very focused. You watch the way he walks around, nothing really bothers him. He knows how to pitch. He doesn’t let things bother him and you expect that from a competitor.”

St. John recently decided to continue his athletic career and education at Babson University in Boston. The school discovered him after he went to some showcases in Long Island last summer and sent out film of himself to various colleges.

“I guess the Babson coach took interest in my slim, tall body,” he said. “So he said ‘You throw pretty hard, you’ve got good mechanics. We can put weight on you, that’s no problem. You’ll be throwing real hard once you get here.’ TCNJ (The College of New Jersey) was pursuing me but I don’t know what happened, they stopped pursuing me. But I still found a great school.”

St. John will major in Data Analytics but when asked what he will do with that degree, he laughed and replied, “I dunno. I’ll minor in finance too. If I don’t like it, I can always change it.”

One thing that won’t change is his love of playing for the hometown team. In an ever-changing world of players forfeiting legion baseball for travel ball, St. John will return to Mike Coryell’s squad this summer.

“Everyone says travel ball is the way to go,” St. John said. “I didn’t really want to do that. I had a lot of fun playing with my friends my whole life so I figured I’d just stick with it.”

Which sticks St. John and Post 339 both in a happy situation.

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The varsity baseball team has games scheduled for Wednesday, May 1 (at Trenton); Friday, May 3 (Nottingham); Saturday, May 4 (Princeton); Monday, May 6 (Mercer County Tournament); Friday, May 10 (Voorhees); Tuesday, May 14 (at WW-P South); Wednesday, May 15 (Northern Burlington); Friday, May 17 (Princeton Day); and Saturday, May 18 (Montgomery).