July 22, 2020

Palmeri Got Chance to Shine with His Bat, Glove As Hun Baseball Competed in Last Dance Event

CATCHING UP: Cole Palmeri, right, guards the plate last week for the The Program, the Hun School baseball team entry in the Last Dance World Series statewide New Jersey high school baseball tournament. The event was organized for this July in order to give seniors an opportunity to play with their teammates one last time. Recently graduated Palmeri played catcher in both games as Hun topped Pennington 5-2 before falling 3-2 to Trenton Catholic to get eliminated from the competition. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Cole Palmeri would have loved to play a few more baseball games with his Hun School teammates, but the couple that they did get together meant a lot.

Palmeri caught both games that the Hun entry, known as The Program, played in the single-elimination Last Dance World Series last Wednesday and Tuesday at the Trenton Babe Ruth field.

The Hamilton resident was behind the plate for Hun’s pitching staff in a 5-2 win over Pennington in the Last Dance opener on July 14 and had a key RBI before Hun was eliminated with a 3-2 heartbreaking loss to Trenton Catholic Academy a day later in the four-team Trenton Regional (Group 10B) of the South Region.

“That was great to get out there and play again,” said Palmeri. “To get back out there with my teammates especially after having the season canceled in the spring, it was kind of a good little redemption tour to get back out there, especially for me as a senior. It was good to get one last chance to play with my guys.”

The Last Dance tournament was put together with the idea of giving players the chance to play again after the high school spring season was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. For a player like Palmeri, it was an opportunity that he couldn’t pass up and he relished the chance to get back on the field.

“I was really excited,” said Palmeri. “Me and all my friends were all talking about how exciting it is, we’d finally get a shot to play again, whoever thought it would happen? I definitely made sure I didn’t take it for granted. I definitely enjoyed every single moment of it.”

Hun was primed to make a deep run in the Last Dance. The Raiders were coming off a 2019 season in which they went 22-2 and won the Prep A state championship for the fourth straight season. The squad was feeling good about its chances at another big year when they got the disappointing news that the season was over.

“That was pretty tough, especially because I thought our team was looking really, really good this year,” said Palmeri.

“I really wanted to show what I was made of this year. It got cut short, but it’s all right because we did get to play. It was good to get back out there again. It was very emotional having to play with my guys for one last time. It was just good to get back out there again. Sometimes stuff happens the way you don’t plan, but it’s how you bounce back that’s the most important thing.”

Getting His Chance

Palmeri had been waiting his turn for Hun since arriving as a freshman. He played behind catcher Danny Melnick at his preferred position, and even moved around for a chance to contribute on the field.

“The thing was, I was really patient with that,” said Palmeri.

“I tried to play other positions. I played right field last year to try to get some playing time. I was really excited to get behind the plate this year. That didn’t happen the way I wanted it to. Me waiting my turn has taught me a lot about patience. I think it taught me I need to work harder to get where I want to be. I think it was a blessing in disguise for me to develop as a person and a player.”

In his limited 2020 experience, Palmeri proved himself behind the plate. He caught both of Hun’s scrimmages this spring before the season was cut short and was behind the plate for both games in the Last Dance tournament where he threw out a couple of would-be base stealers, and hit the ball hard while going 2-for-5 at the plate.

“This was going to be the year when he was going to own the spot behind the plate,” said Hun head coach Tom Monfiletto. “He just got so much better. He put so much work in within those four years to become an absolute stud behind the plate. He was able to show it in those games and that was really, really cool to see. He’s always been excellent at the plate. He’s always been a great, great hitter. Danny Melnick was starting in front of him the last couple years. It was really cool to see him own that spot in those couple games. He made the absolute most of it. He hit really well. He played really well. He threw out like three guys. He was amazing.”

Dance Moves

Opening the Last Dance on July 14, Hun shook off the rust to overcome a strong Pennington effort and stay alive with a 5-2 win.

“Pennington’s first pitcher, Ameer Hasan, did an excellent job,” said Monfiletto.

“I think he threw five innings. They made a lot of plays. We felt like we hit the ball hard. Their shortstop made a bunch of plays. They played really well defensively. We had some line outs. We had a couple nice swings, but things weren’t really falling. Pennington came out and played extremely well. They pitched well and played great defense. Our pitching was probably the story of that game.”

For its part, Hun got solid pitching from Carson Applegate over the first five innings and Carson Wehner in the final two innings.

“Carson Applegate threw extremely well,” said Monfiletto. “He looked like he was in midseason form. Cole did an excellent job behind the plate. We had a couple nice defensive plays as well. Defensively we looked great. Offensively, we had a couple good swings. Ben Petrone had a couple hits. Jackson Kraemer had an RBI. Jake Sloss swung the bat really, really well in both games. He had an RBI against Pennington. That was a huge spark for us. He lined the ball into left field and wound up getting all the way to third. It ignited our whole sideline. It was awesome.”

In its second game of the tournament against Trenton Catholic, Hun used other pitchers and was able to get some more good work on the mound. After yielding a first-inning run, Hun held TCA largely in check until the final frame.

“I thought our pitching staff did really, really well,” said Palmeri. “Carson Applegate came out the first game and threw five innings of one-run ball. He did really well. Carson Wehner came in and shut the door for us Game 1. In the second game, our pitchers did really well. I was impressed with our staff. When our main guys couldn’t go out there and pitch, some of the guys that aren’t our main pitchers stepped up and did really well. I was impressed, especially with how some of our younger guys handled themselves. It was really nice to see.”

Ricky Erbeck, Jake Sloss and Jackson Kraemer all threw two innings or more in the second game with Wehner recording the final out in the seventh inning. TCA took a 1-0 lead in the top half of the first inning, but Hun responded immediately. Applegate doubled and Palmeri drove him in to tie the game. Applegate also scored the second run after being hit by a pitch and scoring easily on Petrone’s triple to right field to make it 2-1. Neither team scored until the final inning when TCA capitalized on a pair of walks and an error to take a 3-2 lead and hold off Hun in it final at bat.

“We were a strike away from moving on,” said Monfiletto. “We just didn’t score enough runs. We needed to score more runs. That was the message I said to the guys.”

Enjoying the Ride

While it was a gut-wrenching ending for Hun, the players appreciated being back in live baseball games. It was a chance that they all were craving.

“It was really clear that they enjoyed being around each other and really enjoyed competing with one another,” said Monfiletto.

“There were some moments in those games that were incredibly exciting. I’m glad that they are able to have those memories.”

The Last Dance tournament gave the Raiders an environment that they had been missing over the last several months, and the chance to play together again made it more special.

“They were really, really fun,” said Palmeri. “They were really high intensity. Each game was one loss and you’re done – very high stakes, so if you lost you were done. The games were really intense which was awesome. I’ve honestly never played in a baseball game like that where the intensity is so much fun. All the guys were screaming in the dugout and it was awesome to be back out there. The games themselves, obviously the second game didn’t go the way we wanted, but we still played pretty well. There were some times where we could have done some things different, but overall we played pretty well especially for not being together for almost four months and throwing together our team and hopping out there and playing. I was pretty happy with the way we performed and handled ourselves out there.”

Staying Ready

While Palmeri wasn’t sure after the spring season was canceled if he’d ever get to play with his Hun teammates again, he spent the past few months trying to stay prepared.

“Right when I got back home from our Florida trip that got cut short, I started working out with some of my friends in this garage basement,” said Palmeri.

“I was working out a lot. Me and a couple college friends go to work every day. We go hit and do defense and things like that. Every day we try to do something to get better and stay prepared for whatever comes our way.”

In addition, Hun got together in the weeks leading up to the Last Dance and the program was able to bring out its alumni to help in the preparation for the event.

“That was awesome,” said Monfiletto. “We weren’t able to have our camp this year, so that was a way to do something. Camp is always a great way for the alumni to come back and help out and stay connected. This was a good way to do that and I think they had some fun. That part was cool.”

The practices combined with his regular workouts had Palmeri ready to test himself when the Last Dance started. He did not show the months off when the tournament began.

“I felt really good actually,” said Palmeri. “We got some live ABs and some scrimmages before the tournament. That helped. I felt really, really prepared especially with all the work I’ve been putting in. It felt good to get back out there. It was one of the best times I’ve ever felt playing baseball. I felt very prepared.”

College Plans

Looking ahead, Palmeri plans to continue working out and stay ready for any experiences that emerge. He could play in a sandlot league in some final preparation before he heads to Colby College this fall where he will be competing for its baseball program.

“I’m really excited to go to Colby, it’s a perfect fit for me. I really like the coaching staff and the guys on the team,” said Palmeri.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m looking to compete from day one. I’m going to keep putting in the work and hopefully I’ll have a good shot to play my freshman year.”

Palmeri was part of a senior class at Hun that included Drew Smiley, Sloss, Anthony Bencardino, Scott Reicheg, Jake Marcin, Louis Bencardino, Charlie Davis, and Griffin Mumme who were on the roster for one final chance to represent The Program. Hun anticipated getting together once more as a group before they head to college and they turn over the team to the next wave of seniors and contributors.

“I think the program looks really, really good,” said Palmeri. “We have really strong younger guys in the 2022 and 2023 classes, and in the 2021 class we have some really good players and have some good leaders on that team that will come out next year. Coach Mono does a really good job of forming the culture at Hun and coaching a really good team. I think the future is bright. If they play as a team and keep doing the things that made us good in the past, it’s only going to go up from here.”