Kenny Levari powers St. Augustine past Bishop Eustace in playoff game

St. Augustine’s Josh Hood hits grand slam in third inning of 12-11 win over Bishop Eustace.

Kenny Levari likes to play it cool and keep his emotions in check on the baseball field.

But the biggest hit of the St. Augustine Prep sophomore’s life was no time for nonchalance.

Levari’s three-run home run in the top of the seventh inning lifted St. Augustine Prep to a 12-11 victory over Bishop Eustace Prep Friday in an instant classic of a Non-Public South A semifinal between arch-rivals and the top two teams in the rankings.

Levari grasped the magnitude of the moment as soon as he launched the baseball deep over the short porch in right field and nearly into traffic on Route 70.

He turned and yelled in celebration at St. Augustine’s fans before slamming his bat to the ground and circling the bases.

“He’s not overly emotional,” St. Augustine coach Mike Bylone said. “But that was a big spot. A big spot.”

Said St. Augustine shortstop Josh Hood: “This game, the way the emotions were going, he had every right to be as hyped as he was.”

Levari played the game of his young career in powering third-seeded St. Augustine Prep (24-3), the No. 2 team in the Inquirer Top 25, into Tuesday’s sectional finals. The Hermits will host Notre Dame in the Non-Public South A title game, with the chance to advance to the state finals for the third year in a row.

Levari was 3-for-4 with a two home runs and a double. He drove in seven runs, including five in the last three innings with a pair of blasts over the fence in right-field.

“In Little League,” Levari said of his last two-homer game. “But never on a field this size.”

Hood cracked a grand slam in the third inning and senior Kevin Eaise was 2-for-3 and scored a pair of runs for St. Augustine in the rubber match between two of South Jersey’s top programs.

Junior Gerry Peacock pitched a 1-2-3 seventh inning with a strikeout for the final out to earn the save for St. Augustine.

Junior Johnny Piacentino and senior Ryan Colbert hit home runs for second-seeded Bishop Eustace (23-5), the No. 1 team in the rankings.

Colbert nearly hit a grand slam in the fifth, but his blast well over the fence down the right-field line was ruled foul, drawing howls of protest from Bishop Eustace fans and bringing Crusaders coach Sam Tropiano out of the dugout for a lengthy discussion with the first-base umpire.

“What a game,” Tropiano said. “That was a tough one to endure. It was a great game to be a part of but it was heartbreaking to the end. To come back [and take the lead] and still lose in the end, that was crushing.”

The loss marked the end of the careers of Bishop Eustace’s seniors, including standouts such as Colbert, Sky Duff, Joe Oczkowski and Christian Capaldi, among others.

“It’s just hard to imagine not being on the baseball field with them anymore,” Tropiano said.

It was a wild game played in oppressive weather, with emotions running high on the field and around the backstop among fans of both teams.

“It’s hard not to notice that,” Hood said of the spirited fans.

The heat and humidity might have sapped strength and command from the procession of pitchers, which combined with the hitter-friendly dimensions of Bishop Eustace’s field led to a high-scoring game of momentum swings.

Hood’s grand slam and Levari’s two-run double highlighted a six-run third inning as the Hermits took a 7-2 lead.

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St. Augustine senior Josh Hood celebrates his grand slam.

Levari’s first home run, a two-run shot, made it 9-4 in the fifth.

Bishop Eustace chipped away and the Crusaders broke through in the sixth, using five walks and a hit batter to score six times and take an 11-9 lead. Junior Mike Guzzardo started the rally with a double and batted around to knock in a run when he was hit by a pitch.

“I’ve played enough games on this field to know no lead is safe,” Bylone said.

Senior Kevin Eaise led off the top of the seventh with a single and junior Joe Bonczek reached on a walk.

That brought Levari to the plate.

His second home run was a no-doubter – a thunder-clap crack of the bat that brought St. Augustine fans to their feet and Hermits players out of the dugout in celebration.

Levari said he never has never spun around and gestured to the crowd before circling the bases.

But then again, he never had two home runs and seven RBIs in a playoff game of this magnitude, either.

“It was just this game,” Levari said. “That was definitely fun.”

St. Augustine 106 020 3 – 12 12 2

Bishop Eustace 112 016 0 – 11 9 1

WP: James Weston. LP:  Nick Dziuba.

2B: SA-Kenny Levari; BE: Mike Guzzardo.

HR: SA-Josh Hood, Kenny Levari 2; BE: Johnny Piacentino, Ryan Colbert.