SHRUB OAK, N.Y. – Lakeland entered the 2019 season as the defending Section 1 Class A champions and were looking to win back to back titles for the first time in school history.
The Hornets did just that, beating Nyack, 5-4, in the title game at Pace University, behind winning pitcher, junior Evan Berta, who played centerfield when he was not on the mound.
“Being a part of something never done before at Lakeland was special,” said the Fairfield University-bound Berta. “We grew up watching some of the older teams play in section title games. Lakeland has a great history of baseball, so to be able to at least argue that we might have been the best of them all, is something I think we should all be proud of. Three would have been better, but can’t argue that winning back to back was sweet. I’ll remember my teammates from those teams the rest of my life. I hope to accomplish a lot in my career, but it will be hard to top those championships.”
What made winning back to back sectional crowns extra special was the fact that Lakeland didn’t play one game on its campus because its field was under construction.
Pitcher/first baseman, junior captain Joe Vetrano, who was named the Gatorade 2019 New York Baseball Player of the Year, said its road-warrior mentality started with its coaching staff.
“Coach (Bill) Casey and the rest of the staff preached to us that it wasn’t going to be an easy task playing more away games than normal and our home games not even being at Lakeland,” said Vetrano, who’s headed to Boston College. “We just accepted the challenge and took one game at a time.”
Senior captain, shortstop Leo Cummings, said the team had a bond like no other.
“Most of us had been playing together since we started playing travel ball,” Cummings said. “We were always just focused on winning; where we played came second to us. Having no home field was just a chip on our shoulder that we used as fuel throughout the season.”
Berta said that not having a home field was odd, and that the team took it as another challenge.
“We knew we had the talent to win, no matter where we played,” Berta said.
Fortunately for the Hornets, Granite Knolls Park had opened up roughly in the middle of the season, which helped.
“It definitely helped a lot, considering it’s only two minutes from Lakeland, so it was as close to a home game as we would get,” said Vetrano, the title-game MVP.
Playing at Granite Knolls was especially helpful during the postseason.
“We were so fortunate to finally be able to play at Granite Knolls in the playoffs,” Cummings said. “Being the No. 1 seed, and having all home games, was great because it felt like our whole town was there to support. Those games were like the ones you see in the movies, where the environment is electric.”
“But we earned the No. 1 seed, only losing one game early in the year, so having the ability to play at Granite Knolls for all of our playoff games was great,” Berta said. “We felt we had a great home crowd every game cheering us on.”
Vetrano said that it meant everything to win the sectional title two years in a row.
“We worked so hard the whole year to get back to the finals,” Vetrano said. “To be part of the first team in Lakeland’s history to go back to back was a huge milestone for Lakeland baseball and something we will always remember.”
Cummings said it was an honor to be a senior captain of this squad.
“Growing up, all I ever dreamed about was to someday play shortstop for Lakeland High School,” Cummings said. “I am so fortunate that I got to live any high-school athlete’s dream, and I got to do it with the best group of guys and coaches. Those are some memories I’ll have forever.”