The buzz of excitement filled TD Bank Ballpark, home of the Somerset Patriots, on Tuesday morning as baseball was back in action on the diamond with Hillsborough High School and Rutgers Prep squaring off in their first pool play game of the Last Dance World Series.
Opening Day had finally arrived for the Raiders and the team couldn’t be happier to be back playing together again.
From the moment Coach Eric Eden jumped into the middle of his team’s huddle before they took the field, to junior Vinny Versaci striking out the side in the seventh inning to close out the game, emotions of joy and laughter that were pent up for four months came out in Hillsborough’s 5-2 victory.
“It feels good to be back out here on the field with the team,” Eden said. “They’re a very special group and a fun team to be around. They were hooting and hollering all game. We had a lot of fun.”
Hillsborough took control of the contest from the jump when Ryan Hvozdovic stepped into the batter’s box to lead off the bottom of the first inning.
The sound of the ball coming off the bat was heard throughout the stadium as the sophomore connected for a solo shot that just cleared the right field fence to give Hillsborough a 1-0 lead.
“It was what we needed to get started and I am happy I was the guy to do it,” Hvozdovic said. “I never hit a home run at a field like this, so I was hoping it was going to go over. It felt great.”
Senior Jason Wolff added to the Hillsborough lead later on in the inning. Wolff smacked a base hit to centerfield and then came all the way around to score on three wild pitches to give the Raiders a two-run lead.
The senior continued to provide more run support for his squad in the third inning.
Following a roaring triple hit by teammate Luke Crawford, Wolff stepped to the plate next and smoked a two-out RBI through the right side of the infield to put Hillsborough up 3-0.
Crawford racked up two hits as well in the Hillsborough victory.
Wolff would later come around to score just like he did in the first inning, scoring his second run of the game on a wild pitch as he continued to take advantage of his second chance to get some closure for his senior season being cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve worked hard the last couple of days to get ready for this tournament and it’s really nice for all that hard work to pay off in the first game,” Wolff said. “The team and myself were pretty bummed when the season got canceled, so for us to pick up here in the tournament and put together a good game to advance feels awesome.”
Senior right-hander Joey O’Donnell was solid in his start on the mound for the Raiders, striking out two batters in his three-plus innings of work to get the win.
Fellow classmate Tyler Boose was great in relief, fanning three Rutgers Prep hitters. Versaci pitched two scoreless innings and racked up three strikeouts to get the save.
“I’m proud of the way our pitchers throw,” Eden said. “This tournament is going to come down to who put the time in and who stayed in shape. For us, it’s going to be pound the zone, let our defense work and then get some runs on the board when we’re at bat.”
Senior Liam Davidson added an RBI single to the Hillsborough victory in the fourth inning.
Hillsborough will play against the Gill St. Bernard’s Knights, from Gladstone, in their second pool game of the 11B-TD Bank Regional on July 15.
The winner of that game will play the team that is 2-0 coming out of the 11A-Piscataway Regional for an automatic bid in the single elimination round of 32.
Teams can also advance past the pool stage round depending on their three-game pool play record and how it compares to the other teams in the entire North Jersey bracket.
“I think if we play like we did in the first game that we can make a good run in this tournament,” Wolff said. “We’re a good group of guys. We have some great arms, good hitters and we play well in the field.”
However things turn out in the next two games, Eden is just thrilled to be back on the field with his team, watching them play baseball. The coach was happy to be able to get back with his squad for batting practice on Monday and is looking forward to spending the next few days with his team on the diamond.
Win or lose, it is a blessing in Eden’s eyes that the team has the opportunity to play baseball and he wants his players to focus on having fun and enjoying the time they have on the field together.
“Come out with a smile on your face and don’t worry about the results. Just focus on having fun and enjoy the time we have as a team to be on the field together,” Eden said.