And the least likely of playoff contenders pulls off the biggest upset in perhaps the history of the HCIAA Coviello playoffs.
Even longtime coaches and local baseball experts are absolutely befuddled by the turn of events this local baseball season. You have come to expect the unexpected and predict the unpredictable.
"I've never seen anything like this," one veteran baseball coach said, requesting anonymity. "I don't know if it's a bad sign of bad baseball or a good sign of competitive baseball. But there hasn't been a local season like this that I can remember."
First, let's address the Hawks of Hudson Catholic, who before the season, seemed to be a surefire lock to repeat as HCIAA Coviello champs.
The Hawks had everything going for them. They had many key players returning from a year ago, including the county's top two pitchers in Sean McGrath and Robert "Hammer" Doughty. They had a stud outfielder in Jack Montanile and a power hitter supreme in Brian Doyle.
No other local team boasted a roster with that much top-flight talent. It was almost like it was a team of potential All-Area stars. On paper, the Hawks appeared to be far and above the rest of the county.
But the Hawks never seemed to get into full gear this season. Sure, they won 15 games on pure talent alone, but they struggled from the outset, from the very first game, when they lost to Bayonne.
It all came to a head last Tuesday, when the Hawks dropped a disgusting 6-3 decision to Bayonne in the first round of the playoffs, ending the shockingly disappointing run in the league.
The Hawks did everything they could to hand the game to Bayonne, throwing the ball all over the place, making a multitude of errors. They let an umpire's call get to them emotionally, then made one mistake after another in a classic case of unraveling.
"Hey, we didn't outplay them at all," Bayonne veteran head coach Phil Baccarella said after the win. "They handed it to us. I'll take the win, but we didn't exactly go out there and beat them."
It really was amazing to watch, seeing this team with so much promise come to a screeching halt. Some people close to the Hudson Catholic scene believe that the announcement of the school's pending closing (which has now been resolved and the school will remain open in the fall) had an effect on the entire team. Others think that some of the Hudson kids were playing hurt and didn't live up to expectations.
In any case, it was almost shocking to see a talented team like the Hawks simply unravel and fall apart when the season was on the line. You simply expected a solid playoff run from the most talented team in the county and it just didn't happen.
The Hawks' performance this year may go down as one of the greatest mysteries in recent memory.
Then, there's the story of the Marist Royal Knights, the team that no one even expected to be in the playoff mix.
Marist once had a rich and storied baseball tradition, going back to the 1970s and then again in the mid 1990s, thanks to the efforts of Hall of Fame coach Mike Hogan (now at Ferris), then Marist alum Vinnie Bello (now the coach at Pope John in Sparta).
But in recent years, the program had fallen on some very tough times. They played as an independent for a few seasons with very little success. The school re-entered the HCIAA and was a doormat and an also-ran for most of that time.
The school turned the program over to a famed alumnus, namely former All-Area and All-State outfielder Ron Hayward, who had just previously ended a fine career at William Paterson University.
Hayward guided the Knights to eight wins his first season and just missed the HCIAA and state playoffs a year ago in his second year.
But this was going to be a breakthrough year for the Knights. Hayward knew that he had more talent than ever before, kids like Pat Farrell, sensational sophomore catcher Eddie Sorondo, and a fiery shortstop/pitcher named Fabian Roman.
However, the Knights stumbled and bumbled their way to a nondescript 9-10 regular season mark, making the HCIAA Coviello playoffs as the No. 8 seed.
A week ago, Marist lost to their first-round playoff opponents, St. Peter's Prep, by a score of 10-5.
After that loss, Hayward tried to use a multitude of philosophies to get the Royal Knights prepared to face the top-seeded Marauders once again. Generally speaking, No. 8 seeds don't stand a chance against the No. 1 seed. You mail it in and go home.
But Hayward recalled a recent No. 8 seed in another sport that did pretty well - namely the Prep basketball team, which shocked everyone in winning the HCIAA Coviello title a few months ago.
"Especially after losing to them last week, we had to do something to clear their minds," Hayward said. "So sure thing, I mentioned what happened in basketball, when Prep was the eighth seed and won everything. I told the kids that we could do the same thing. I told them that they were in every game all year and managed to lose games that we should have won. I told them that it was basically still there for them and it was up to whoever wanted it more."
So throw out the Knights' sub-.500 record. Disregard the loss a week ago. This was a new season, a new beginning for a program on the rise.
"It was just like the basketball season all over again," Hayward said.
Sure enough, the speech worked, because the Royal Knights pulled off the unthinkable, shocking the top-seeded Marauders, 4-3, with Roman leading the way, firing a one-hitter and striking out nine.
"He's been pitching great all season," Hayward said. "I had him in class earlier in the day, and he said to me that he wasn't coming out of the game and he wasn't going to lose the game. I was waiting for him to have trouble, but he kept saying, 'This is my ball, my game.' He was determined to win this game."
St. Peter's Prep head coach Joe Urbanovich was disappointed with his team's performance.
"You plug away all season, win 15 games in the league and end up in first place," Urbanovich said. "And now we have nothing to show for it. It was frustrating not being able to do anything in that game."
So the topsy-turvy regular season winds down to the semifinals and then the finals at NJCU's Gerrity Field this weekend. Who's going to win? Well, the preseason choice was Hudson Catholic. So this time, we're going to go with Bayonne. The Bees seem to be the hottest team.
And for the Seglio title game, it should be Hoboken and St. Mary's hooking up again. At least one of the HCIAA's divisions has some sense of consistency.