BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP - The Vineland High School baseball team twice lined balls to center field that the Fighting Clan expected would produce runs Thursday afternoon.
On both occasions, St. Augustine Prep center fielder Mike Elfreth made plays that changed the game's momentum, left his teammates roaring and demoralized Vineland.
Elfreth threw out two base runners as the Hermits beat Vineland 4-0 to win the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference. Elfreth also knocked in two runs with a pair of RBI singles. Chris Oakley pitched a complete-game shutout.
"I guess it was just my day," Elfreth said. "It was for the championship of the CAL. We're rivals with Vineland because of the distance between the schools. I live for this kind of stuff."
Thursday's game was one of the most anticipated of the regular season. The winner would also grab the conference title. Vineland (20-7) is ranked No. 7 in The Press Elite 11, while St. Augustine (19-6) is No. 5. An enthusiastic crowd put up with the occasional drizzle to watch the contest.
Elfreth's outfield assists changed the game.
Vineland outfielder Raekwon Ortiz called them "mood killers."
Elfreth began the season as the Hermits' third baseman. He shifted to center field after a few games because of injuries.
"He could play any position and he plays them well," St. Augustine coach Mike Bylone said. "The only thing I haven't seen him do is catch."
Elfreth's first assist came in the top of the first inning. Vineland had runners on first and second with one out. Fighting Clan cleanup hitter Andrew Gee hit a fly ball into the right center field gap.
"I saw the kid on first base take off as soon as it was hit," Elfreth said. "I knew if I tracked that ball down, I had a shot to get him."
Elfreth caught the ball, spun and made a one-hop throw to first base to double up the Vineland runner and end the inning with a double play.
The second assist came in the top of the second inning with the Hermits ahead 1-0.
Thomas Rodriguez lined a single to center field with Ortiz on second base and two outs.
Elfreth charged the ball and threw in the air to St. Augustine catcher Barry Buchowski. The ball arrived a few steps ahead of Ortiz, who was tagged out to end the inning.
"That was just living the moment," Elfreth said. "The ball was right at me. I saw the (third base) coach give the (runner) the go sign. As soon as I let the ball go, I knew I was going to get him."
St. Augustine led 2-0 on Elfreth's RBI singles in the first and third innings. The Hermits scored two more runs on consecutive doubles by Jay Higbee, Sean Carew and Cody Sadreameli in the bottom of the sixth.
Oakley walked seven batters and pitched consistently with runners on base, but he struck out four and allowed just four hits.
"I struggled from the beginning," Oakley said. "When runners got on base, I felt more focused. I almost felt more comfortable in pressure situations with runners on base."
Vineland ends its season with three straight defeats, but despite those losses the Fighting Clan re-established itself as one of the CAL's top programs this season.
Meanwhile, the Hermits will now turn their attention to the South Jersey Non-Public A playoffs. St. Augustine hosts Pingry in a first-round game at 4 p.m. today.
St. Augustine begins every season with three goals - win the Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic, the Cape-Atlantic League American Conference and the state Non-Public A title.
The Hermits last won the conference in 2011. Before that, they hadn't won the conference since 2004.
As part of the Hermits' celebration, Buchowski dumped a water bucket over Bylone's head.
"This is big," Bylone said. "I told (the players) to enjoy it (Thursday night). There has been many years where we haven't achieved any of our goals. But we have a big game (today)."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Vineland 000 000 0 - 0 4 3
St. Augustine 101 002 x - 4 7 2
2B-Ortiz VL. Higbee, Carew, Sadreameli SA.
WP-Oakley (8-1)4Ks. LP-Money (8-1) 2Ks
Records-Vineland 20-6; St. Augustine 19-6