CHERRY HILL — The Egg Harbor Township baseball team had to scratch and claw all season just to win enough games to qualify for the South Jersey Group 4 tournament. An 0-4 start put the Eagles in an early hole, and a rash of injuries made it difficult for coach Bryan Carmichael to put together a consistent lineup. The Eagles did qualify, and became an instant sensation as the No. 16 seed knocked off top-seeded Shawnee in the opening round, then went on the road again and beat No. 8 Vineland to punch a ticket to the sectional semifinals.

And Tuesday’s semifinal matchup against No. 5 Cherry Hill East looked like it might turn into a slugfest when Cory Kessler roped a booming double to center field in the first inning off Cougars starter Stephen Lombardi. But EHT’s confidence quickly turned to dismay as Lombardi sliced his way through the Eagles’ lineup for the next six innings, allowing just one more hit the rest of the way. Cherry Hill East took a 1-0 lead in the second, added four more in the fourth and cruised to a 5-0 victory to earn a date with No. 3 Eastern, a 4-3 winner over No. 15 Cherokee, in Friday’s sectional championship game.

“I told them we were 13-12 on the year, but one thing I can say about this team is that they never, ever quit. It would have been really easy for these guys three or four weeks ago to pack it in, but in the 12 losses that we had there was never a time when we quit. That was a testament to these kids, they played hard. It’s baseball and things didn’t go our way today. We had two hits today, and you have to tip your hat to that kid, he was pretty good, and that happens,” Carmichael said. “I feel really bad because I really liked spending time with this group of seniors. This group has been to the semifinals three out of four years. A lot of guys who played today, obviously it’s going to be the last time they’ll be in the lineup for us. It’s the last time I’ll put their name on a lineup card. It’s a tough pill to swallow.”

“Me and these guys in the senior class have grown up playing together, from tee-ball to all-star teams when we were younger. It’s all these guys. It’s a bummer to have to let go but I know I’ll always remember this time and we’ll always cherish the memories we made together,” added EHT senior right fielder Robbie Petracci. “We always believed. We believed in each other and we knew what we were capable of because we’ve all grown up playing together for so long. We knew we had the firepower. Sadly, we didn’t end up going all the way, but it’s been a fun ride.”

Following Kessler’s two-out double in the top of the first, Lombardi — who came into the game with a 7-2 record and a 2.12 ERA — retired 18 of the next 22 batters, allowing just one single and two walks, and another batter reached on an infield error. He finished with just four strikeouts, preferring instead to get into pitcher’s counts quickly and rely on his defense to help him out. His offense gave him all the run support he would need in the bottom of the second when Dan Zimba singled to lead off the inning and later scored on an RBI single down the left-field line by Sean McKenna.

In the fourth, the Cougars (18-3) rallied for four more runs. The spurt was highlighted by a two-run single by Alec Rodriguez and another two-run single from Joey Wright that came after Rodriguez swiped second with two outs.

Despite the loss, the Eagles (13-12) still managed to reach the sectional semifinals for the third time in the past four seasons.

“This run says what EHT baseball is all about,” Petracci said. “The past four years we’ve paved the way for these guys and this young group we have is a group you’re going to have to watch out for. They know how to play the game, they play it hard and they’re going to make noise for years to come.”

“There’s a lot of really good guys in that dugout and I wish there was a better fate for them. I really wanted to see them get past (the semifinals). This is kind of our stop-all and we have to figure out a way to get past it,” Carmichael said. “I told the (Cherry Hill West) coach, for what it’s worth, this is our third trip in four years to the semifinals and every team we’ve lost to has won South Jersey Group 4. It’s a meat grinder. You just have to get in because anybody can beat anybody, and we’ve said that from the beginning. I just didn’t want to see this end.”

Petracci, who will be headed to Old Dominion in Virginia this fall to continue his academic and baseball career, said the loss doesn’t dampen what his high school career meant to himself and the other seniors.

“I’ll remember the fun times with coaches and teammates, all the memories made at practice every day, cracking jokes, Myrtle Beach trips. Honestly, the things you’ll forget first is probably the baseball itself,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to play for my town. All of us who grew up together never wanted to go anywhere else, we all wanted to play for EHT, and we wear this uniform with pride. I’ll always be an Eagle, no matter where baseball takes me.”

What’s next: No. 5 Cherry Hill East travels to No. 3 Eastern on Friday for the South Jersey Group 4 championship. Egg Harbor Township’s season is complete.

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays