Andrew Vail was still in the bullpen, warming up for his biggest start of the season, when he heard the crack of the bat.
"I looked up, and Evan was getting ready to round first base," Vail said of his Gloucester Catholic teammate, Evan Giordano. "I knew it was going to be a good day."
It was a great day for Vail, Giordano and the rest of the Rams.
Giordano got things started with a home run on the game's third pitch, and senior right-handed Ian Murphy closed the deal with 2 1/3 innings of hitless, scoreless relief.
But it was Vail's work in the middle that set the stage for Gloucester Catholic's 5-1 victory over Immaculata on Tuesday in the championship game of the Non-Public South B tournament.
Pitching against the top seed on its home field at the hitter-friendly Diamond Nation complex in Flemington, Vail allowed five hits and one run with 11 strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings.
The Maryland-bound left-hander struck out the side in the first and third, both times finishing the frame with two runners on base.
"He just had that look early on," Gloucester Catholic coach Adam Tussey said. "That look, 'We're not going to lose.' He's a gamer."
Said Giordano of Vail: "He was unreal. It showed what kind of competitor he is, how much he wants to seize the moment."
Giordano was 2-for-4 and second baseman Tyler Cannon was 2-for-4 with an RBI single for second-seeded Gloucester Catholic (18-8), which advanced to face North Jersey champion DePaul Catholic (15-13) in the Non-Public South B title game this weekend at Veterans Park in Hamilton Township.
The date and time of the game will be announced by the NJSIAA on Wednesday. The Rams will be seeking their 19th state title, by far the most of any New Jersey program.
"We're not done yet," Vail said. "We're looking for one more."
Giordano, a Stony Brook recruit, led off the game by cracking his 12th home run. He laced a fastball over the fence in left field after taking a pair of curveballs for a 1-1 count.
"I was looking fastball and got a good stroke on it," Giordano said. "It was a big momentum boost for us."
Tussey said Giordano's home run set the tone, especially since the Rams were facing an Immaculata team with a 21-3 record.
"He's our guy," Tussey said of Giordano. "He's been our leader all year."
The Rams added another run in the first as Jason Bobiak singled and scored on Luke Lesch's sacrifice bunt. Bobiak, the team's veteran center fielder, dove headfirst across home plate.
Gloucester Catholic made it 5-0 with a three-spot in the third, two of which were unearned. Cannon delivered an RBI single and Lesch and Andrew Colligan drove in runs with ground outs.
That was more than enough for Vail, who ran his record to 7-2 with his fourth double-digit strikeout performance of the season.
Vail controlled Immaculata's potent lineup with a sharp curve and a live fastball that sat around 85 mph. He walked four and hit a batter, so he always seemed to be working with runners on base.
But he kept striking out batters to escape trouble. His fastball was the key: It seemed to ambush hitters with lots of late life and movement.
"He couldn't throw the ball straight to save his life," Tussey said.
Said Vail: "It was really just my fastball today."
Vail said he embraced the challenge of pitching in the sectional title game, on the home field of the top seed, and leading the Rams back to the state finals in pursuit of their second straight crown.
"Coach told me after we beat St. Rose, 'You got the ball, go get it,'" Vail said. "I took that to heart."
Gloucester Catholic 203 000 0 – 5 8 1
Immaculata 000 010 0 – 1 5 1
WP: Andrew Vail. LP: Noah Jordan.