At the beginning of the season, most who glanced at Eastern's baseball roster probably didn't envision the Vikings' playing into the final week of May.
The Vikings won their first state Group 4 baseball title last season, but with just one returning starter and playing in the treacherous Olympic Conference American Division, they didn't generate many high expectations this year - except from within.
Despite being decimated by graduation and plagued by injuries, Eastern is indeed playing in the final week of May and has picked an opportune time to be putting things together.
The season was extended Tuesday with a 5-1 victory at second-seeded Washington Township in a South Jersey Group 4 semifinal.
Seeded No. 11, Eastern (18-9) will visit No. 8 Rancocas Valley in the sectional final Friday.
Washington Township (23-7) is a difficult team to beat, but Eastern has won all three meetings this year with the Minutemen, who captured the American Division title.
This can best be described as an Eastern team that plays with earmuffs. When there was talk that this year's team couldn't begin to measure up to last season's, the Vikings heard none of it.
"It is just extraneous noise," coach Rob Christ said. "We're just trying to win each inning, each game."
The Vikings received five strong innings from starter Alex Schwartz, a junior righthander who was a JV performer last year and a spectator at the beginning of this season because of a sprained elbow ligament.
He has been back less than a month and "has been an absolute gem," Christ said.
Township had runners at the corners with no outs in the first inning, and Schwartz kept them off the board.
"That was big," Township coach Bill Alvaro said. "If you are playing with the lead, it changes some of the things you can do."
Schwartz got a flyout, strikeout, and line-out to end the first inning.
"I love the scenario where it's me, and I have to do the job," he said.
Eastern went up, 2-0, in the third on an RBI double by catcher Tyler Travis and RBI single by shortstop Tom Flacco, the only returning full-time starter from last year.
"This was a different group, but I saw no reason why we couldn't contend," Flacco said.
After Township cut the lead to 2-1 on John Schoelkopf's RBI single in the third, Eastern scored two in the fourth on Corey Kreston's sacrifice bunt that led to two throwing errors.
Designated hitter Collin Fabio hit a home run in the sixth and Austin Friedant shut the door with two shutout innings in relief of Schwartz.
Eastern also turned three double plays, doing the little things that add up. So many Vikings players have chipped in, especially during a tournament in which they also have beaten No. 6 Vineland and No. 3 Williamstown.
"It's really exciting being back," Schwartz said.
The Vikings are indeed back, to a place they thought they belonged all along.
Eastern 002 201 0 - 5 6 1
Washington Twp. 001 000 0 - 1 7 4
WP: Alex Schwartz. LP: Mark Scarpa. 2B: E-Tyler Travis. W-Colin McAllister. HR: E-Collin Fabio.