Mike Decker's return from ACL tear sparks Clearview in baseball

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Mike Decker delivers the game-winning hit in Clearview’s 6-5 victory over Highland on Tuesday.

Mike Decker always knew he loved baseball.

He just never realized the depth of his devotion to the game until it was gone.

“Last year — that was the hardest thing I ever went through,” Decker said. “It was so tough.”

Decker was a freshman contributor for one of the best teams in Clearview High School history in 2016. He batted .450 in limited action and started every playoff game at third base for the South Jersey Group 4 champions and No. 1 team in the Inquirer Top 25.

But he missed all of 2017 — the high school season as well as the summer and fall travel-team circuits — after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in February.

Back on the diamond after going a year and a half between games, Decker is making up for lost time with a rapid-fire series of line drives and clutch hits. He also is playing a mean third base.

Through Tuesday, Decker was batting .524 as the Pioneers had fashioned a 7-1 record and risen to No. 5 in the Inquirer Top 25.

The Pioneers won their sixth game in a row Tuesday, beating Highland, 6-5, as Decker slashed a walk-off single to drive home junior Shawn Dougherty in the bottom of the seventh.

“He’s come back in a big way,” Clearview coach Rolando Gautier said. “To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. He had a torn ACL, he was out a while, it was hard to tell what he might be able to do this season.

“But he’s developed into one of the best hitters in our league. And his fielding has been exceptional.”

Decker was hurt playing in a youth-league basketball game. He tried to rehabilitate his knee and play the 2017 season without surgery but couldn’t make it through tryouts.

“I went to a few doctors,” Decker said. “One doctor told me if I worked hard, I would be able to play on it.

“I listened to him and I worked hard and I tried out and but it kept on giving out on me. I just couldn’t do it and I knew I had to have surgery.”

Camera icon H. Rumph Jr./For the Inquirer
Clearview junior Mike Decker was batting .524 with a team-high 12 RBIs through Tuesday.

Decker underwent surgery in March. He spent the baseball season with his team, sitting in the dugout and cheering for his friends.

“It hurt a lot to see him like that,” Dougherty said. “That’s one of my best friends and he was having such a hard time, not being able to play.

“It great to have him back. It’s another big bat in our lineup.”

Decker couldn’t play travel ball in 2017 since his knee wasn’t fully recovered from surgery. He worked out hard this past winter, spending a lot of time in the batting cage.

But Clearview’s season opener March 31 was his first baseball game since the fall of 2016.

“I was [nervous], but I worked hard so I knew I could be better than I was before,” Decker said. “I feel stronger than I did before I got hurt.

“It’s awesome, just getting back out there. I was looking forward to this year so much. I don’t think I ever looked forward to baseball as much as I did this year.”

Decker is part of a potent Clearview lineup that includes juniors  Dougherty (.565, 12 RBIs), Brandon Drapeau (.423, 11 RBIs), Hunter Kelly (.353), and Aidan Hoffman (.391, 16 runs) as well as freshman Ian Petrutz (.474, nine walks), who already has committed to Maryland.

Decker is tied for the team lead in RBIs with 12. He’s tops in extra-base hits with five. And he’s tied for second in hits (11) and walks (nine).

“He just seems to make good contact every game,” Gautier said.

A lefthanded swinger, Decker drove home a run Tuesday with a deep, opposite-field fly to left field in the first, then ended the game with another opposite-field hit, a liner down the line with one out in the bottom of the seventh.

The Pioneers poured out of the dugout in celebration of the victory that extended their winning streak and tightened their grip on first place in the Tri-County Conference’s Royal Division.

“I think this the closest team I’ve ever played on,” Decker said. “We’re all really close. We’re best friends outside of baseball, we do everything together outside of baseball.

“We’re just so close, we trust each other and everyone knows we’re going to pick each other up.

“We have good chemistry and we just hit the ball.”

7th annual Coaches vs. Cancer Baseball Classic

Friday at Somers Point

Mainland vs. Millville, 7 p.m.

Saturday, at Mainland

Cedar Creek vs. Atlantic City, 9 a.m.

Buena vs. Bridgeton, 11:30 a.m.

Holy Spirit vs. Bishop Eustace, 2 p.m.

Ocean City vs. Cherokee, 4:30 p.m.

Sunday, at Mainland

Highland vs. Absegami, 9 a.m.

Cherry Hill East vs. Williamstown, 11:30 a.m.

Gloucester Catholic vs. St. Augustine, 2 p.m.

Washington Twp. vs. Egg Harbor Twp., 4:30 p.m.