FINAL CUT: Hun School baseball player Justin Pontrella makes contact in recent action. Last weekend, senior first baseman and Swarthmore College-bound Pontrella helped Hun make it to the final round of the state Prep A tournament where it fell to Blair to end the season at 14-8. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
It was Justin Pontrella’s last day as a Hun School baseball player and he couldn’t wait to hit the field.
With the Raiders hosting Blair Academy in the final round of the state Prep A tournament last Sunday, senior first baseman Pontrella was primed to go for a title.
“I woke up at 6, we were all up early,” said Pontrella. “We couldn’t sleep we were so ready for this game. The MAPL (Mid-Atlantic Prep League) didn’t go our way, the MCTs (Mercer County Tournament) didn’t go our way so we had it all bottled up, especially me and the other seniors. We were finishing our Hun baseball career. We were really, really ready to do this.
Pontrella and his teammates faced an uphill battle in the double-elimination tourney as they had fallen to Blair on Saturday in the semifinal round and needed to beat the Buccaneers twice to earn the championship.
In game one, the Raiders jumped out to a 2-0 lead after the second inning and rode the pitching of senior star Jason Applegate to a win by that margin.
“We knew that as soon as Jason threw that first pitch stroke, we were going to win that game,” said Pontrella, referring to Applegate who gave up three hits in earning the shutout.
“When we came in and Evan (Barratt) led off in the bottom of the inning with a hit. Everyone was so fired up, there was not a doubt in my mind that we were going to win that game. It was just all energy.”
In the decisive game, though, Blair had the energy, scoring two runs in each of the first three innings on the way to a 12-0 win and the title.
“They scored first and that is huge,” said Pontrella, who pounded out two hits in the finale. “If you can get a run across in the first inning in high school, more often than not, you are going to win the game. They put two on in the first and two in the second. We couldn’t string together the hits.”
Pontrella loved playing out the string in the infield with classmates, second baseman Peter Schintzler and shortstop Nick Perez, along with the rest of the 2015 squad as it posted a 14-8 record.
“There are three out of four infielders that played with me on JV freshman and sophomore year so we have been together for four years,” said Pontrella.
“We had young guys who wanted to play, we had two sophomores in the lineup. Everyone just wants to play. There are no egos, there are no superstars, everyone is just solid. We all loved to play baseball. Everyone is smiling, we are louder on the bench than any other team. Everyone is smiling and joking and having a good time with each other. We just pull for each other, it is so great.”
In reflecting on his Hun career, Pontrella said he pulled things together for a big senior year.
“I have been through everything,” said Pontrella. “I played really, really well on JV for the first two years. I got up here junior year and didn’t do so well and this year, I had a great season to go away.”
Hun head coach Bill McQuade gave his team credit for fighting through a tough weekend which saw it lose 4-0 to Blair in the winner’s bracket game in the semifinal round on Saturday and then come back later that afternoon to beat Peddie 5-3 to make it to the final round on Sunday.
“We had four games in two days in the heat and humidity,” said McQuade. “It is tough. The kids are young so it is more mental than anything else.”
Senior star and Villanova-bound Applegate showed his toughness in the first game on Sunday, mowing down Blair to get Hun to a winner-take-all title contest.
“Applegate pitched an unbelievable game, he capped a great career,” said McQuade. “He went 9-0 this season, it is the second most wins in a season of any pitcher at Hun. One guy had 10 so what he did was absolutely spectacular to get us to this level.”
Hun, though, couldn’t maintain that level in the finale, digging an early hole that ultimately doomed their chances for a crown. “We play well when we get ahead, they got ahead of us 2-0 and we almost scored in the first inning, which would have been crucial,” said McQuade.
“Then they got two more runs and then I think the pressure started to mount a little bit at 4-0 down and then it got to six. That is where the mental part started kicking in and all of a sudden you see kids hanging their heads in the heat.”
Despite falling short of the Prep A title, the Hun players have no reason to hang their heads.
“From the time we started the season, the team had a personality, differing from recent years that way,” said McQuade.
“We got down to Florida for our spring trip and they bonded down there. They had fun. The season itself was terrific, to be co-champs in the MAPL is huge because Mercersburg, year in, year out, is good.”
McQuade had fun watching Pontrella develop into a star for the Raiders.
“He is so emotional about everything, he has got that presence,” said McQuade.
“The way he carries himself around the bag is great, he has some of the softest hands I have ever seen of any first baseman. He hits, he fields.”
The senior class which included Brayden Stasow, Matt Kooker, Kyle O’Sullivan, Dalton Bianco, and Gideon Friedberg in addition to Pontrella, Applegate, Perez, and Schintzler, had a great impact in their final campaign.
“They were in some tough games last year, we struggled with wins and losses,” said McQuade, whose team went 8-12 in 2014.
“A lot of our games were really close so you learned a lot from that. The challenge was — hey now you are seniors, and it is your turn, you own it or are you just going to coast through the season. They bought into that they owned it and they worked hard every day. They did everything I asked them. I couldn’t be more proud of how hard these kids worked. They come down to practice and they goof around, which is fun. The game is meant to be fun so we try to have as much fun as possible.”
The Hun players also learned from some alumni coaches, who helped carry on the winning tradition developed under McQuade’s 45 years at the helm of the Raiders.
“We get the younger alums here with Chris Leach and Tommy Monfiletto just taking off work to be here,” said McQuade.
“We preach program and they are the heart of the program. When the kids see the alums that are here day in day out, week in, week out and the alums that come to our games, that is what we preach. We carry a ton of kids and I will always do that because I would rather have more kids that want to be a part of the program than turn them away.”
For Pontrella, being part of the Hun program has been an unforgettable experience.
“When I am having a bad day at school, at night I will just come and sit in the dugout and think about this and how awesome this was,” said Pontrella.
“Luckily I am going to be playing in college at Swarthmore. Even if I wasn’t, I would be happy to end my career on this field because this is so great, everything about it. When I look back at Hun, this is what I see, the coaches and the guys.”