Considering the standards consistently set by the Notre Dame High School baseball team, 2021 was not a vintage year.

True, the Irish did give coach Joe Drulis his 20th consecutive winning season. But their 9-8 record marked the least number of wins in Drulis’ coaching career and the team’s .529 winning percentage was the lowest ever recorded under him.

Growing pains, however, seemed to have paid off for the Lawrenceville-based program. Several key players from that team have returned as seasoned veterans and the results are noticeable. ND opened the campaign with seven straight victories, scored between 10 and 23 runs in every contest; and outscored its opponents 87-18.

“We’re hitting from top to bottom in the lineup this year, and some of the players are a year older,” Drulis said, referring mainly to seniors Ryan Mignogna, Jackson Wargo and Dylan Palmer, and juniors Brendan Buecker and Logan Eilbacher. “They played last year, and all have another year under their belt. They understand how to approach hitting and they’re doing a great job.”

The 7-0 start has been a pleasant surprise for the coaching staff.

“After a 9-8 year, you’re cautiously optimistic,” Drulis continued. “I knew we’d be able to hit but I didn’t think we’d be able to hit this well. That’s a tribute to the players. … Coaches can put their players in positions to do well and to execute, but in the end the players have to make the plays and they’ve done an incredible job so far.”

Buecker has led the offense with a .636 batting average, two doubles, one home run, 17 RBI and 12 runs scored. Like his brother Rob, who is currently playing for West Point, Brendan has a military future in mind as he has committed to play baseball at Virginia Military Institute. He was recruited as a catcher, but with the Irish he also plays second and third base depending on who is pitching.

“He’s a special player just like his brother was,” Drulis said. “Brendan does it all. He would pitch but he’s had some arm issues in the past. VMI has shut him down. If he pitched, he’d be one of our closers. Mentally he’s just so tough. He’s also a great hitter; he hits to all fields.”

Shortstop Dylan Palmer – who is headed for Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y., next year – has been the perfect leadoff hitter. He’s batting .500 with six walks, 11 stolen bases and 17 runs scored; and his speed has pressured infielders to bobble balls as he has reached several times on errors. His second base partner is Wargo – committed to Kean University, Union – who’s batting .421 with seven walks, eight RBI and 13 runs scored.

Although not pitchers by trade, Palmer and Wargo have both volunteered to throw some innings if need be. Both players were honorable mention preseason All-America selections and are the driving force behind the Irish.  

“They’ve done a great job of being leaders,” Drulis said. “They’re doing it by example. They’re doing it on the field and they’re encouraging the underclassmen. Ryan Mignogna fits into that category. He’s having a wonderful year for us.”

Mignogna is 3-0 on the mound with a 1.40 ERA. He has allowed just three hits and two walks while striking out 14 in 10 innings. At the plate, the Arcadia commit is batting .500 with three doubles, one home run, 12 RBI and nine runs scored.

If all that isn’t enough, Eilbacher is the Irish’s leading hitter with a blistering .705 average and .783 on-base percentage. He has 11 RBI and 12 runs scored.

Also contributing have been Lance Eilbacher (.500, five RBI, five runs), Jack Hughes (.286, five RBI, five runs) and David Olenchalk (.400, six runs, team-high seven walks)  

Despite a team batting average of .463, the biggest key to the hot start has been the pitchers’ emergence.

“We just didn’t know what we had,” Drulis said. “We knew we had talented pitchers, but they were really inexperienced. We’re pleasantly surprised at how great they’re doing. That’s a tribute to our two pitching coaches, Bob Reilly and Charlie Battis. They’ve done a great job of getting our pitchers ready and executing their pitches.”

It starts with Mignogna, who has had some tough luck in high school.  

“Ryan lost his sophomore year to COVID-19, so that would have been a big year for him experience-wise,” Drulis said. “Last year he had some arm issues and that kind of limited him. This year we set him up with the role of being a starter with the mental makeup of ‘Hey, give us as much as you can. You don’t have to win the game. You don’t have to have a complete game in order for us to win.’ So he really accepted it and grabbed that role well. He’s thrown strikes and had some great outings.”

Another valuable starter has been junior Luke Foley, who’s 2-0 with a 1.21 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 11? innings. Foley threw just two varsity innings last year.  

“Luke is quiet but he’s a barracuda, he’s a really tough kid,” Drulis said. “He’s not afraid of the big moment. He was a point guard in basketball so has varsity experience there. As a sophomore, he did really well for us on JV. I kind of knew he was gonna make the transition to varsity just because he’s got a great work ethic.”

The Irish also have a nice team ethic when it comes to their faith. Most players are members of the school’s Catholic Athletes for Christ organization; and Drulis wants to bring back the Baseball Bible Study he started before COVID-19 hit.

“They’re very grounded and deep into spirituality,” said the coach, a devout Catholic who attends St. James Parish in Pennington. “They’re good athletes and all good scholars. In baseball they talk about five-tool players and at a clinic I attended they talked about the sixth tool being mentality. I kind of introduced a seventh tool to our program – spirituality. Our guys have good faith and are leaning on that.”  

How far that helps take them this year is anyone’s guess.

“We’re going in the right direction but the bottom line is how you finish,” Drulis said. “These guys pick each other up. It’s great to see. Hopefully they continue their winning ways and get back to being successful.”