Lombardi leads Northern Highlands baseball to walk-off win by Greg Tartaglia of The Record
ALLENDALE – Of all the things people expect to hear from a victorious baseball team, “Welcome to the zoo” was far down the list until Saturday.
That was what Northern Highlands players chanted as the broke the postgame huddle following a 4-3, walk-off win against Indian Hills.
The Highlander seniors were pinpointed as the originators of the saying, specifically catcher Luke Lombardi.
“It was a sign in our assistant coach’s classroom, and I just thought it was funny, so we brought it to the team,” Lombardi said.
“It’s because we’re animals out there on the field,” center fielder Gabe Robles added, acknowledging comparison has both positive and negative connotations.
“To us, it’s a good thing,” Robles said. “We’re out there grinding, battling with the pitchers, so that’s always good.”
Lombardi cited Bob Merrilees’ business class as the source of the phrase but is uncertain as to why the assistant coach displays the small wooden sign on which it resides.
“That’s the big mystery right there,” Lombardi said. “It’s going to be our motto throughout the season. Whenever we get a win, we’ve got to say it.”
Wins have been difficult to come by for many North Jersey teams, owing to inclement weather that has kept them off the field.
It took seven days into the season for both Northern Highlands and Indian Hills to reach two games played, and Saturday’s contest – played in 44-degree conditions – completed a split of their Big North Freedom home-and-home series.
“I was happy that we got the two games in,” said Highlanders coach Paul Albarella, whose team spent a week in Florida during the preseason to maximize its field time.
The Braves won the series opener Thursday in Oakland, 7-2, getting two RBI apiece from Joe Cruciata, Nick DiDonato and Frank Greco.
The Highlanders used a patient approach in taking the rematch. They drew seven walks in the first two innings and scored three runs, two by Robles on bases-loaded walks and one on a Lombardi RBI single.
Cruciata forced a bottom of the seventh with a two-out, two-strike solo homer to right-center. It was the only extra-base hit of the day.
Lombardi led off the home seventh with a single up the middle. Four batters later, he came home from third on Thai Morgan’s sacrifice fly, scoring safely when the throw got away from the catcher.
Northern Highlands used a trio of sophomore pitchers, with Tom Sullivan (4⅔ innings, two unearned runs, no walks, 10 strikeouts) getting the start. The right-hander was a defenseman on the school’s state-championship hockey team in the winter.
“He might not have had his best stuff, but he is good, and he’s going to be even better,” Albarella said of Sullivan. “He’s got a great rhythm, he works well, and the fielders like to field behind him.”
Indian Hills starter Josh Cohen pitched into the third and got a no-decision, but his outing carried greater significance. Braves coach George Hill noted that Cohen got his first start of the season on the one-year anniversary of his final chemotherapy treatment for Ewing sarcoma.