South Jersey baseball officials have approved major changes to the timing and format of the Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic.
The new-look Diamond Classic, a prestigious in-season tournament that started in 1974, will begin and end earlier, feature seeding, and provide teams with the option of using their top pitchers without conflict with the state tournaments.
“It’s going to be more of a midseason classic,” said Bishop Eustace baseball coach and athletic director Sam Tropiano, an officer with the South Jersey Baseball Coaches Association and one of the driving forces behind the changes.
Under the new format, the 2019 Diamond Classic’s 16 teams will be selected on May 1. The field will be the same as in the past: 10 teams will earn automatic berths as division leaders, and six teams will be chosen as at-large entries.
In a twist, the teams will be seeded from Nos. 1 through 16 by the same panel of sportswriters that chooses the six at-large clubs. The first-round games, which will match No. 1 vs. No. 16, No. 2 vs. No. 15, etc., will be concluded by May 8 at the site of the higher seed.
Under the old format, first-round games were pre-determined, with matchups such as, for example, Olympic American vs. At-Large No. 1, and Cape National vs. Colonial Liberty, set before the start of the tournament.
“We wanted to maintain the March Madness kind of feel of opening the tournament to everybody, smaller schools getting in, and the tournament being representative of all of South Jersey baseball,” Tropiano said. “But we’ve had a lot of situations where we’ve had top teams playing each other in the first round and we wanted to get away from that.”
On Saturday, May 11, second- and third-round games will be played at Washington Township and Deptford. There will be quarterfinals at both sites at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. The winners of those games will meet at 4 p.m. at the same sites in the semifinals.
The title game for the 46th annual Diamond Classic is set for Wednesday, May 15, at Eastern High School, with the first pitch at 6:30 p.m.
Tropiano said the May 15 date for the championship game should create a more level playing field, as public-school teams will be able to use their top pitchers and still have them available for the May 20 start of the state tournament.
In the past, the Diamond Classic was scheduled to end on the Sunday night before the start of the public-school state tournament. That title game would come at the conclusion of a crowded weekend in which teams would need to win in the quarterfinals Saturday and the semifinals Sunday afternoon to qualify for the title game.
That put a heavy strain on pitching staffs, particularly for public schools with their respective state tournaments set to start the next day.
Non-public teams had an advantage since their tournaments, with smaller fields, often didn’t start until that Thursday, with top teams such as Bishop Eustace, Gloucester Catholic and St. Augustine frequently receiving first-round byes.
“This definitely makes it a fairer situation,” said Eastern coach Rob Christ, whose team has won two of the last three Diamond Classic titles. “Maybe the best team we’ve had here, the 2017 team, we had to pitch a J.V. pitcher in the semifinals because we knew we had the state tournament starting on Monday.”
Tropiano said Hartmann, a South Jersey baseball legend and the former Eastern coach who helped start the tournament in 1974, is on board with the changes.