Holy Spirit senior second baseman Pat Oakes had struggled at the plate throughout the Last Dance World Series, hitting the ball hard at times but coming up empty. In what turned out to be the final at-bat of his high school career on Tuesday night in the Round of 32 single elimination game against Monroe Township Baseball/Williamstown, Oakes smoked a double into the gap in right-center. After he reached second base safely, he allowed himself a smile and saluted his teammates on the bench, the guys who have been supporting his efforts the past four years.

Assistant coach Andrew DiPasquale said, proudly, “he’ll remember that the rest of his life.”

The Baseball Performance Center Spartans, players representing Holy Spirit High School, rallied for a couple of runs in the top of the seventh inning but ultimately came up short, falling 7-3 to Williamstown, and the team was eliminated from the 222-team, state-wide competition that was meant to make up for teams losing their entire 2020 season due to Covid-19.

And, ultimately, that’s what this tournament has been about — allowing graduated seniors to have one last chance to represent their schools and play alongside their teammates.

“I said, ‘you know what, this is my last one so I might as well end on a good hit.’ I got a good pitch I like, drove it to right-center, where my power is, and it felt good,” said Oakes, who plans to attend St. Joseph University to study accounting. “I’ve spent my whole life playing baseball, so it felt good getting to that second-base bag one more time as a high school player. I always have all my teammates and fans here to cheer me on, and that growl from the dugout was awesome to hear from second base. It was definitely a good feeling. It felt good to end on that last big hit.”

Williamstown (4-0) jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the second inning on a solo home run to deep left field by Greg Zerbe, but Holy Spirit (3-1) answered in the third when leadoff hitter C.J. Egrie walked, stole second, took third on a passed ball and scored on Steven Petrosh’s sacrifice fly. Williamstown regained the lead in its half of the third on a bloop RBI single by Johnny Wood, who finished with three hits, then the home team rallied for five runs in the bottom of the fourth to jump out to a 7-1 lead. Two runs scored via a wild pitch and an infield error, then Ryan Achey chased home two more to finish off the rally.

Spirit mounted a bit of a comeback in the seventh when Oakes doubled and scored and Shane Solari followed with an RBI single, but Zerbe, who came on in relief in the sixth, was able to close it out to send Williamstown on to today’s “Sweet 16” round at the home of the Lakewood BlueClaws.

“I’m just thankful we got to play in this tournament one last time. These boys are forever going to be my brothers and I wouldn’t have wanted to play with anybody else. This has been great. I loved the target on our back, especially for these young guys, they better keep it rolling. Everybody had doubts about us, even in our region, and we came in and swept it and we made our mark and got to advance,” said Holy Spirit senior catcher Justin Jimenez, who helped the Spartans go 3-0 in last week’s Ocean City Region. “My freshman and sophomore years I was sitting behind Matt (Rivera) but my junior and senior years I made a statement and I made a mark, that I was going to make a name for myself and try as hard as I could to get into a good university, and I did that by landing at Frostburg State (Md.).”

“I think they realized it there at the end as we were trying to get a rally going — we still had a shot to win this thing, it wasn’t a blowout — but I think it kind of clicked in their heads that this might be it. It kind of clicked in Justin’s head the last inning he caught that this might be the last inning he ever caught for us,” said Spirit coach Steve Normane. “We’re just thankful we got to play in this thing. The people who put this together did it for the right reasons. The reasons are to watch those six (seniors) walk off in their uniforms one more time, so that was nice.”

The Spartans, Normane said, have a lot to build on from this tournament for next year as they’ll return their entire outfield, most of their pitching staff and shortstop Petrosh.

“Once I sent the seniors off, I said to (the underclassmen) that we have a chance to do something really good next year. Trevor, Shane, Steven Petrosh, C.J. Egrie, they all had kind of break-out tournaments, if you will, because they didn’t get to do it their junior year, and sophomore year for Trevor,” Normane said. “Next year, hey, there are guys who are hungry to take these seniors’ spots, so we’re really excited for next year. I told them, ‘don’t forget this feeling. We don’t like losing our last game. Let that fuel you a little bit.'”

In keeping with tradition, following the post-game huddle, the Spartans’ coaching staff sent the six seniors off to walk back to the dugout to greet parents, friends and fans. It was a special moment considering this group thought they might never get a chance to put on the Navy blue and gold again when the season got canceled in March.

“Every year we have the seniors walk it off and it’s a tribute to all the time and dedication we’ve put in. All the seniors, we were always out here, the first ones to get here and the last ones to leave. We’ve always been putting that work in,” Oakes said. “We always kept our heads up and we were always ready to play. It was a little disappointing having our real senior year taken away from us, but once we heard about this Last Dance tournament it was every day in the cages, always working at it. It’s really competitive baseball here in South Jersey, and we made it far and had a lot of fun. It’s been awesome. I think we were the only team left from our area — in our conference we have Ocean City, ACIT, Egg Harbor Township, and we beat all of them and advanced. We have a big group of young guys to keep this tradition going, too.”

Added an emotional Jimenez, “We’ve had a helluva run and I love these boys. I wouldn’t have wanted to go to war with anybody else.”

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