Delsea gets coach’s birthday wish, beat rivals Highland in key Tri-Co clash

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When you hit your 50s, there aren’t too many things you need for your birthday.

Blowing out cake candles with family and friends is always a great experience. But when it comes to gifts, things with monetary value don’t necessarily matter.

Delsea coach Joe Smith turned 54 on Friday. His only wish was victory.

It turns out his players made sure the first bite of cake was better than ever.

Trailing by two, the Crusaders scored three on five hits late in the fifth inning and went on to hold Highland 4-3 in a key Tri-County Liberty Division showdown.

With a victory, Highland would have won the absolute title. Instead, the two can secure a share of the crown for the second straight year with wins in their final division games next week.

“The best birthday present ever,” Smith said.

Delsea (15-5) extended its winning streak to seven in a row, which started on the heels of a three-game losing skid. The Crusaders can earn that piece of the crown with a victory over Cumberland.

Smith said he’s taken the reins off a bit in recent weeks, taking a much more relaxed approach to playing with a squad that remains relatively young. His passion remains as strong as ever, but with age comes a little more wisdom.

The boys in red and white have more fun, and that’s translated into wins.

“I was on them a lot at the start of the year. My personality…I’m intense and fair in the game,” Smith said. “Some of the kids didn’t agree, so I backed off and told them to have some more fun. A little less screaming, but if I make less screaming, they better have more fun.

“We had to work with each other. I just let them play and have fun.

Jake Watson picked up the win and struck out seven in six innings, while Konnor Reilly’s two-run single in the fifth tied the game at 3-3. Delsea cruised to a 4-3 win over rivals Highland in the Tri-County Liberty game.

Jake Watson took the win with one of his best performances of the season. The senior went six innings, struck out seven and allowed four hits. Highland (15-7) loaded the bases in the seventh but George Starr was able to induce a late game double play.

“I haven’t done six all year. My main objective was just to launch strikes. I struggled with that,” Watson said.

“We definitely have more fun as a team. We all work hard and we feed on the energy of others.

In the deciding fifth, Konnor Reilly delivered a two-run single with the bases loaded to tie the game at 3-3. Ryan Harrison would beat a potential double play, allowing Zach Maxwell to score what would prove to be the winning run.

“It was great running runs. I was focused on putting it on the line, hitting the ball hard,” Reilly said. “We are proud of our tenacity.

“After the first loss for the Highlands, it was difficult. We knew we could take it back and get the win.

With South Jersey’s Group 3 playoffs set to begin on June 1, any team is capable of racing and finishing the season with trophy gear. The Crusaders got some solid throwing and are playing strong defensively. There’s no reason to think this team can’t be in the title conversation.

“They’re starting to learn how to play in close games – win or lose – and find ways to get on the base, playing incredible defense and our pitchers are throwing out strikes,” Smith said. “That was our problem at the start. Our pitchers weren’t throwing shots and we were giving up too many runs.

“Each week you want to gradually improve, and at the end of May you want to peak. Seven straight wins and four remaining, I don’t know how long you can peak, but I hope “We’ll keep going up. If we play hard and lose, OK. We just can’t play sloppy, we can’t kick the ball.

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Kevin Minnick covers South Jersey baseball. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @kminnicksports

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