Phil Anastasia: Brooks' return gives Gloucester Catholic a boost

In a long and busy game, it was one swing, one hit, one headfirst slide into third base.

But it was so much more than that for Joe Brooks and the Gloucester Catholic baseball team.

Joe Brooks scores on a passed ball in Gloucester Catholic's win over St. Augustine.

Brooks might not be all the way back from injury, but his triple off the wall at Rowan University in the Non-Public South A championship game Tuesday was a great sign for the Rams and their senior leader.

"It felt good to square up on one," Brooks said after Gloucester Catholic's 12-4 victory over St. Augustine Prep propelled the No. 1 team in The Inquirer's South Jersey rankings to Saturday's state final against Don Bosco Prep at Toms River North.

It's a fitting finale for the Rams and the Ironmen, too - probably the two best teams in the state clashing on the last day of the long season in a rematch of a May 6 game that the North Jersey powerhouse won in dramatic fashion in Provident Bank Park in Pomona, N.Y.

Brooks missed that game, and 12 others, with a torn ligament in his right thumb. He sustained the injury diving into second base against Highland on April 18 - "playing hard, like he always does," Gloucester Catholic coach Dennis Barth said - and returned May 22 against Kingsway.

"It was tough," Brooks said of sitting out. "I'm not used to that. I never really was hurt before. I tried to stay positive. I learned a lot. My teammates did a great job of keeping me strong."

Brooks isn't fully recovered. He's still going through physical therapy, trying to rebuild strength and flexibility in the thumb.

He doesn't know when he'll be 100 percent. Maybe during Brooklawn's American Legion season this summer. Maybe during fall ball for East Carolina University.

But here's the thing: Gloucester Catholic is fully recovered. The Rams, despite their 27-4 record, were off their game at times this season, showing occasional lapses in the hardcore intensity that has been the hallmark of the program.

Much of the Rams' struggles - such as they were, seeing as how this team has lost a grand total of two games to New Jersey opponents - occurred during Brooks' absence. That was no coincidence. They missed the second baseman who brought a full measure of offensive tenacity to the middle of the lineup.

"The kid loves baseball," senior shortstop Robbie Alessandrine said. "Seeing him sitting out, it was tough."

Gloucester Catholic has won 10 in a row. The Rams are 7-0 since Brooks returned to the lineup as a designated hitter.

While he's still scraping the rust off his swing, Brooks has delivered a couple of big knocks in recent games. He had a two-run single in a 4-0 win over Bishop Eustace in the South A quarterfinals. And his triple off the wall against St. Augustine, the 97th hit of his career, was part of a four-run rally that snapped a 4-4 tie and turned the tide the Rams' way.

"One hundred hits doesn't define his career," Barth said. "He's always been more about the team."

Brooks' presence might mean even more than his smooth, lefthanded stroke in the No. 2 spot in the batting order. He's one of six seniors who have started since their sophomore year, who have led the Rams to back-to-back state championships, and who now have the chance to finish their careers in the highest style: with a victory over a Don Bosco team that might be the best squad Gloucester Catholic has faced in 20 appearances in the state finals.

There's something fitting about the fact that the Rams have the nucleus of that special senior class together for this last game, that Pat Kane, Brett Tenuto, John Brue, Elliott McCummings, Alessandrine, and Brooks will take the field for the last time together in Gloucester Catholic uniforms in what might be the biggest game of their careers.

That's why that blast off the right-center field fence on Tuesday and Brooks' slide into third base were so important. That play closed the circle, and just in time.

As another key Rams senior, Joe Santone, said, "That's the Brooksie we know."


Contact Phil Anastasia

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