'Best captain' Jack Owens leads Cherry Hill West baseball team

Cherry Hill West third baseman Jack Owens throwing to first in Tuesday’s S.J. 3 semifinal vs Timber Creek.

It’s no neat trick to be a leader when things are going right.

It’s a lot tougher when things are going wrong.

The Cherry Hill West baseball team entered the state tournament on a four-game losing streak. The Lions looked nothing like a future South Jersey finalist.

“When you lose those games, doubts creep in,” senior Jack Owens said. “That’s when you have to stay positive, talk to the guys, try to keep the energy up.

“I know guys are looking at me. I know I have to lead by example.”

Dominant pitching and heavy hitting have propelled fifth-seeded Cherry Hill West (14-9) into the South Jersey Group 3 title game against 10th-seeded Seneca (18-6) on Friday at Tom Trotman Field.

But what the statistic sheet can’t show is the other key factor in the Lions’ remarkable run: the contagious can-do pep of Owens, the team’s third baseman and No. 2 hitter.

“One of the best leaders we’ve ever had,” said Cherry Hill West coach Dan McMaster, who is in his ninth season. “When your best player is your hardest worker, it influences your team and your whole program.”

Cherry Hill West junior pitcher Eli Atiya, who has thrown 12 scoreless innings in winning a pair of playoff games, said Owens’ leadership have been instrumental in the Lions’ late-season surge.

“Best captain I’ve ever had,” Atiya said. “He fires us up. He keeps our energy up. When things are going wrong, he’s never got his head down. He’s always going 110 percent, always treating every play like it’s his last.”

Owens took the field Tuesday for the  sectional semifinals with a bounce in his step. He let out a rebel yell when he reached third base, setting the tone for the Lions’ aggressive approach to the pivotal game.

In the bottom of the first inning, Owens rapped a single to left, stole second and third, and scored on a wild pitch for a 1-0 lead that would stand as the eventual winning run in a 10-0 victory.

Camera icon David Maialetti / Staff Photographer
Jack Owens scoring on a wild pitch to give Cherry Hill West a 1-0 lead over Timber Creek in the first inning of Tuesday’s South Jersey Group. 3 semifinal.

“Being a three-year starter, I feel like a lot of the younger guys look towards me,” Owens said. “We have a lot of young guys on this team.

“We only have two seniors that start. A lot of guys look to me for that energy, to bring that energy.”

Owens doesn’t just talk a good game. A West Chester recruit, Owens is batting .441 with 23 runs, 21 RBIs, and 14 stolen bases. He has 11 extra-base hits, including eight doubles, despite missing four games because of an injury.

“He’s a great ballplayer but a better person,” McMaster said. “I joke around and say that I hope my son, who’s 3 years old, grows up to be someone like Jack.”

Owens said the Lions’ four-game skid at the end of the regular season might have worked in the team’s favor as a wake-up call.

“A couple of those losses at the end of season fired us up,” Owens said. “We know we’re better than that. We knew we’re better than the way we were playing.”

Cherry Hill West has been a different team in the state tournament. Strong pitching from Atiya and junior Brian Robertson has been the key, but the Lions also generated 20 hits and 23 runs in their last two games.

Owens had two hits, including a double, and scored two runs in a 13-2 win over Highland in the second round. He made solid contact in all four at-bats Tuesday, lining into a double play and lacing another ball to center field.

Owens said Cherry Hill West’s first trip to the sectional finals in McMaster’s time with the program has been something of a dream come true.

“It’s exactly how I dreamed it would be,” Owens said. “But we’ve got one more game to go and that’s what I’ve been really dreaming about.”

Baseball Sectional Finals

(All games Friday at 4 p.m. except Seneca at Cherry Hill West and Point Pleasant Borough at Haddonfield. Both are at 3 p.m.)

South Jersey Group 4

No. 9 seed Shawnee (17-8) at No. 3 Jackson Memorial (24-6)

South Jersey Group 3

No. 10 Seneca (18-6) at No. 5 Cherry Hill West (14-9)

South Jersey Group 2

No. 5 Point Pleasant Borugh (18-8) at No. 2 Haddonfield (16-5)

South Jersey Group 1

No. 5 Pennsville (19-8) at No. 3 Glassboro (16-8)

Central Jersey Group 1

No. 3 Riverside (16-9) at No. 1 Middlesex (21-4)