Adversity helped shape N. Burlington ace

Zach Gakeler, one of the top pitchers in South Jersey, is expected to start Saturday against Pennsville in the Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic.
Zach Gakeler, one of the top pitchers in South Jersey, is expected to start Saturday against Pennsville in the Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 18, 2014

The result doesn't always tell the exact story and that was certainly the case two years ago for current Northern Burlington senior lefthander Zack Gakeler.

As a sophomore he was 0-6, but his 3.00 ERA was more of an indication of how he pitched than the won-loss record.

Since then he has earned a baseball scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh and has become one of the top pitchers in South Jersey.

Last season he was 9-1 with 91 strikeouts as Northern Burlington won the Central Jersey Group 3 championship.

This year he is 5-1 with a 1.32 ERA as Northern Burlington has fielded one of the best teams in South Jersey.

Gakeler is expected to make his next start at noon Saturday in the quarterfinal round of the Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic, against Pennsville, at Washington Township.

This has the making of a classic game. Pennsville is ranked No. 2 in South Jersey by The Inquirer and Northern Burlington is No. 3. During the last two years, Gakeler has made a habit of getting the ball and producing in big games.

For all the success Gakeler has enjoyed during the last two seasons, he can point to that sophomore season as a turning point. How he responded to a season that didn't go by design showed a lot about his resilience.

"I think that season humbled him," said veteran Northern Burlington coach Rich Doppler. "He pitched against all the top teams and pitched well, but it's still tough when you don't see the result."

What Gakeler realized is that being on the short end of the final score can be a valuable lesson, even if it isn't the preferred way to learn.

"It was frustrating, but it taught me to keep my composure," Gakeler said. "I realized that, win or lose, I had to stay confident."

There was no lack of confidence or winning last year, and the pattern has continued this season.

Gakeler was the winning pitcher in the Greyhounds' 4-3 victory over Wall during last year's Central Jersey Group 3 championship game. He also contributed a two-run double.

"It felt great to be part of that championship," Gakeler said.

This season Gakeler has been a major threat at the plate and the mound. He is batting .420 with four home runs and 30 RBIs.

Despite his accomplished offense, it's pitching that he will concentrate on in college, and for good reason.

He said his fastball topped off at 88 m.p.h., plenty fast, especially for a lefthander.

In addition, in last week's 10-0 Diamond win over Haddonfield, he had command of a change-up, slider, and curveball while throwing a two-hitter against a strong Bulldogs offense.

He said he learned how to throw the curveball by throwing a tin of tobacco and making sure it had the right spin to it. The tobacco tin has long been discarded, but the spin has remained.

Like all players, Gakeler is hoping to make the most of this senior year. His team's season ended last year with a 4-3 loss to Burlington Township in the state Group 3 semifinal.

Being one game away from competing in the state final has made Gakeler and his teammates hungry.

Then again, the hunger to win came after a sophomore season when the mounting losses served only as motivation for Gakeler.

"I believe that adversity he went through sophomore season is what has made him what he is today," Doppler said. "I am so proud of him."


mnarducci@phillynews.com

@sjnard

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