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After numerous down years, Neumann is now at the top and climbing in baseball

RALPH WILSON/Sun-Gazette Correspondent St John Neumann’s JerVal Weeks-Shuler pitches during a game against Muncy earlier this season. The Golden Knights are off to their best start at 10-1.

Once upon a time, St. John Neumann struggled just filling out a baseball roster. The playoffs often were just a far-fetched dream. Actually, that was just a few years ago.

Entering the 2018 season, Neumann had reached the playoffs just three times. Following an historic 2014 District 4 Class A final appearance, Neumann fell on hard times and did not sniff the postseason again for the next three years.

From the ashes, though, Neumann rose again. The Knights are playoff-bound for a third straight year and are enjoying the best start in program history. Neumann (10-1) has won five straight games and was closing in on another before rain suspended its Tuesday game against Muncy with it leading 11-3 in the bottom of the fourth inning. A program which experienced so many down years is rising high and is seeking the first league and district championships in program history.

A season like this was expected last year before COVID wiped it out. Given another opportunity, Neumann is embracing it and making quite a mark.

“Not having last year was an eye-opener in that we can’t take anything for granted now. This group of seniors and juniors understand that the time is limited. They lost a whole year and they want bigger things,” Neumann coach Cory Burkholder said. “We’re waiting to see where we head into the playoffs and how we’re going to do when we get there. I think we’re finally starting to find a focus and jell as a team.”

Instead of looking for players to fill out a lineup, Neumann now features a deep roster and has weapons throughout its order and which it can bring off the bench. The Knights are hitting .344 as a team, six players are hitting above .300 and Keon Burkholder and JerVal Weeks-Shuler are two of the area’s premier pitchers. Six players have produced at least 10 RBIs, and the defense has improved.

This is not a team featuring one or two good players, but a good team, period. In a Mid-Penn league long dominated by teams like Montgomery, Muncy and Millville, Neumann now holds a two-game lead and is undefeated in league play.

“Our lineup is doing a phenomenal job of supporting each other whehther it’s seven through nine, the top or the guys in the middle. They understand and are learning how to support each other,” Burkholder said. “That’s a fun process to watch. They’re jelling together and figuring out how to help each other instead of just looking for stats or something like that. They’re looking at how they can help the team. That’s important and they’re buying it.”

Neumann features quality senior leadership with Jeff Hamilton, Caleb Reddy and Keon Burkholder all being experienced players. It also possesses exciting newcomers like Naseer Dymeck, shining after not having played baseball in four years, and Naz Smith who is among the state’s leading base stealers (25). Sophomore Kane Wright is coming on strong and Neumann is not just building a team, but a program.

“They’re figuring it out. They’re reinventing ways to have fun and enjoying playing this game and they’re working hard,” Cory Burkholder said. “The senior leadership has been outstanding. Those three have taken the reins and the juniors are picking it up. The younger kids are learning from the older guys and that’s the way we try to build this.”

A successful foundation has been built during the offseason. While Neumann has players who have shined in other sports, these are good baseball players; not just good athletes playing baseball. Many of these teammates competed together in American Legion Baseball last summer and also played fall baseball against strong teams like Hazleton and Dallas. A bond has been built, trust established, and that is something the statistics cannot measure. Of course, Neumann’s goal was not to start 10-1, but to be playing into June.

That is why its one loss might have been so important. Neumann started 5-0 and had just beaten 2019 District 4 Class A champion Montgomery in its previous game when it traveled to North Penn-Mansfield for a Saturday game last month. The Knights made seven errors, fell behind big early and lost, 10-8.

Nobody likes losing, but regular-season losses which do not eliminate team can offer powerful learning opportunities. Looking at the big picture, that loss might have been a blessing and it has led to more wins since.

“That gave us an eye-opener that there is a lot of work to be done. They understand now that even after a win there is work to be done which is huge when you’re trying to build a culture,” Burkholder said. “Even finding things to work on when you win is important and they’re learning that process. That is what losing that game helped us do. We know now that we have to get better even after a win.”

The Knights started at the bottom and have scaled some impressive heights since 2018, but they have not yet reached the summit. They set a program record with 15 wins two years ago and have set some lofty goals moving forward.

The climb continues.

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