St. Augustine Prep had the bases loaded with one out in the bottom of the fourth inning of the state championship game against Delbarton, and had just tied the game, 2-2, on an infield error by the Green Wave. But Delbarton had Jack Leiter, one of the best high school pitchers in the nation, on the hill, so scoring runs was at a premium. The Hermits desperately needed to at least push one more run across to take the lead, because you never know how many scoring opportunities you’ll get against a player of Leiter’s caliber.

Senior right fielder Cole Vanderslice stepped to the plate — the perfect player for that situation. Vanderslice battled Leiter, continuously fouling off some of the best pitches the righty had to offer. He drew an RBI walk after a grueling 10-pitch at-bat, giving St. Augustine a 3-2 lead. Delbarton eventually won the game, 4-3, by scoring a run in the top of the eighth after tying the game at 3 in the sixth, but that at-bat showed just how valuable Vanderslice was throughout his career with the Hermits.

As a sophomore, coach Mike Bylone turned to Vanderslice to come on in relief in the state title game, and Delbarton scored in walk-off fashion to win the championship. Bylone and the rest of the coaching staff told Vanderslice not to worry, because the Hermits were going to make it back to the big game the following year, and again Vanderslice would be the guy they turned to. That’s a lot of confidence to have in a sophomore pitcher. Last year, Vanderslice was, indeed, on the hill, as the Hermits got some revenge by beating Delbarton and winning a state title.

“Early on we could see the talent that he had. His sophomore year we put him in some big spots, pitching-wise, and you could tell he was a hard-nosed, tough kid who wasn’t afraid of the spotlight. And that helped him flourish throughout his career. He played in some really big games as a sophomore and junior. His career played out like we expected it to go from him. Another state championship would have been icing on the cake for him. Even in basketball, he battles and loves the pressure, and you don’t come across many kids who can thrive in a championship atmosphere. He had to at such a young age, and that helped mold him into the type of player he became for us,” Bylone said. “He used that as motivation. We told him he’d be back here next year, and damn if he wasn’t. He won that game in 2018, and just to have that career where he’s played in three straight state finals — he’s a good leader, he was a captain this year. It was tough this year with such a young team, but him and Gerry (Peacock) put their arms around these kids and were positive because they remember when they were in their shoes. That comes with experience. I can think of the 2016 season and the guys who helped (Cole and Gerry) along, and they learned from experience. Some of those seniors put their arm around them and said, ‘hey, go get ’em next year,’ and he did the same thing for the young players this year. It’s really neat to see. These kids put their heart and soul into it, and just because they graduate doesn’t mean they are done. We had a lot of alumni at our playoff games this year, and guys like Gerry and Cole look up to the guys who came before them.”

“As a sophomore, that year really developed me a lot as a baseball player, and as a person. Being in those tough situations, having to come in as a closer, I think I learned a lot from that. Having to face all the ups and downs. I had a big game against Eustace to help get us to the state championship, and then I’m walking off the mound (in the state championship) having thrown the last pitch and we lose on a walk-off. All those things really came together and made me a better player in the end. Sophomore year was a really big year for me,” said Vanderslice, who plans to continue his education and baseball career this fall at Villanova. “Our pitching coach always had a lot of faith in me, even from the beginning of my sophomore year. After I walked off the mound he brought me in and said, ‘we’ll be back here again next year and you’ll get another shot.’ I remembered that, and the next year I got a chance. There’s a picture — the same one as the year before — but instead of him telling me we’ll get another shot, we’re celebrating. It was cool to see that.”

“There’s so much I could say about the kid. He’s been my right-hand man since the beginning of our Prep baseball careers,” said fellow senior Gerry Peacock, who spent this season on the injured list. “I love to watch him play and grow. He’s a competitor at the highest level. He could turn on the switch anytime he wanted. During our playoff run, he did everything he could to help us win games. I know he didn’t pitch a lot this year, but you could see in everything he did this year he was competitive. I love that kid like a brother. Villanova is getting a great kid who will compete at the highest level.”

During that at-bat against Leiter — who likely would have been a first round Major League Baseball draft pick had he not been so committed to play at Vanderbilt — Peacock said he just leaned on the rail of the dugout and watched in awe. Here was a guy who was primarily a pitcher throughout his career fouling off fastballs in the low-to-mid 90s, sliders, change-ups, and drawing a huge RBI walk.

“You could just see in his eyes he wasn’t going to back down. I didn’t even say anything, I was just watching him. I could see in his eyes he wasn’t going to give up. Leiter is a great pitcher, obviously, but I knew Cole wasn’t going to give up. He fought through (that at-bat) and won the battle, and that’s what he’s always done for this team,” Peacock said. “Young guys see that and they immediately see what they can do when they have a leader like that on the field. Here’s a guy who’s not going to college to be a hitter, but he was fighting in every at-bat for this team. He got on base, and everybody on the team loved that. It was a ridiculous at-bat, but that’s his competitive nature. Nobody is as competitive as him. He’s an athlete, plays basketball, gets up to bat against a top Major League Baseball prospect and just keeps fouling off pitches.”

With such a young team this season, the Hermits leaned on guys like Vanderslice, Peacock and Jayson Hoopes to lead the way, and Vanderslice’s quiet confidence had a big effect on players who were facing the varsity spotlight for the first time in one of South Jersey’s most prestigious baseball programs.

“It was interesting this year. Gerry took on a coaching role, almost. A lot of kids would go to him and ask questions. And Jay stepped up and took over the presence on the mound. If he was on the mound, you knew he was our guy. I just tried to step up into the role where I’ve been here before and played in these big games, so I just kind of always tried to keep in mind that I had to lead these guys on the field, keep them calm and keep them composed. ‘One inning at a time’ is what I told everybody. Take it all in and play one inning at a time because a lot of kids can get caught up in the moment. As a senior, you have to keep everybody in check and make sure everybody is having fun and staying loose,” Vanderslice said. “This year was a lot of picking each other up. We didn’t expect to have Kyle Neri in the lineup, and I don’t think a lot of people expected to see Jack Peacock in the lineup, but everybody had so much confidence in them stepping into those spots that it made them play at another level, even as underclassmen. As a team, it showed we were all playing together.”

During his career, Vanderslice helped lead the Hermits to four straight South Jersey championships and three straight appearances in the state title game, including a victory in 2018. He likes to joke with Bylone that had the coach put him on the playoff roster as a freshman, the Hermits might have played in four straight state championship games.

“We were having a conversation a few weeks ago and he was talking about how I didn’t bring him up (to varsity) for the playoff roster, and he was giving me a few jabs about that. When he came here we knew he was a great basketball player and pitcher, and it was just going to be a matter of time before he flourished. We were fairly deep in 2016 and he just waited his turn, and he had a great career for us,” Bylone said. “He has the determination and the will to win, and the will to succeed, and that rubs off on everybody. It was great to see him progress through his career, whether he was on the mound or up to bat. It’s a luxury to have a guy like him.”

“I always joke around with him about that. I was in Disney on our freshman trip and following all the baseball on Twitter. I saw they lost and I told coach Bylone, in a joking way, ‘hey, maybe you were missing something.’ That got a laugh out of him, but it was something that drove me and motivated me. I wanted to be a part of it, but everything happens for a reason. That pushed me to be up there and make an impact the next couple of years,” Vanderslice said.

It wasn’t easy for the Prep seniors to walk off the field at Veterans Park in Hamilton a few weeks ago having lost in the state championship game, and losing the final game of their high school careers. And, as a crowd of reporters came to his side, Vanderslice answered all their questions thoughtfully, and with a lot of perspective about how fortunate he’s been to have had such a great high school career.

“It was a cool moment, but it was also the toughest interview I’ve had to give. It was pretty humbling having all these reporters coming up and asking me questions about my career, and seeing me as a leader,” he said. “I take that to heart, leading such a storied program. People really look up to the Prep, and for people to see me as a leader is pretty cool. I was just trying to take in every last moment because I know how much I’m going to miss these high school games. These last four years have been something special.”