Click here for video highlights

PINE HILL — Having thrown 93 pitches through six innings with Jackson Memorial holding a one-run lead, it seemed the Jaguars would have to look beyond senior left-hander Matt Guarino to finish off a trip to the Group IV title game. But getting the ball from Guarino’s hands was not going to happen.

“(Head coach Frank Malta) asked me if I wanted the ball and I said, ‘You’re not taking the ball from me,'” Guarino said. “I wasn’t letting anybody else take the ball. I wanted to finish it off. This was my game.”

Guarino retired the first two hitters before the tying run reached on a two-out walk, bringing senior No. 3 hitter Tom Flacco to the plate. Flacco had already reached base twice, stealing four bases and scoring a run. Guarino quickly got ahead of Flacco, and after a few strikes were fouled away, Guarino blew a high fastball past him for the final out to send the Jaguars into the NJSIAA Group IV title game with a 6-5 victory over Eastern in the group semifinals on Tuesday afternoon at Overbrook High School.

“Matt just kept on motoring and kept making pitches,” Malta said. “We thought about getting him out in the sixth because he was throwing all those extra pitches. But he just beared down. He came out in the seventh, and if there was any question where the momentum was, what he did in the seventh coming out and hammering the strike zone, it calmed everybody else down.”

Senior left-hander Matt Guarino tossed a complete game and also drove in three runs to lead Jackson Memorial to the Group IV final. (Photo by Bob Badders).

“Matt comes out all the time and gives everything he has,” said senior junior Brandon Janofsky. “He’s an absolute workhorse. He’s going to give us an opportunity to win, and that’s who you want on the mound.”

Guarino also helped his own cause with a two-run home run in the first inning and an RBI single in the fourth inning that plated Jackson’s sixth run. Janofsky scored on Guarino’s home run and then ripped a two-run single past the third baseman to start the Jaguars’ four-run, fourth-inning rally.

Jackson (20-7-1) will play Roxbury (25-7-1) in the Group IV title game at one of the three Toms River High Schools on Saturday at a time yet to be determined. Roxbury defeated Millburn, 3-1, in the other semifinal to reach its first group final in program history. Jackson Memorial last reached the Group IV final in 2010, and won its only title in 1972.

Guarino (8-1) allowed two hits in the first inning, but got cleanup hitter Ryan Keen to fly out to right field with a runner on third. That runner was Flacco, who singled before stealing second and third. Guarino allowed another runner in the second via a two-out walk, then retired the side in order in the third. The Jaguars had a 2-0 lead through three innings thanks to Guarino’s first-inning homer. Janofsky led off the bottom of the first by reaching on an error, and after Kyle Johnson flied out to center, Guarino elevated a 2-2 pitch just over the centerfield fence.

“It was a mistake pitch up and in, and I knew I had to do some damage with it,” Guarino said.

Jackson Memorial had developed a habit of falling behind early in games during the postseason, so an early advantage was a welcome sight.

“We congratulated the guys after the first inning because after the first few rounds we’ve been down early,” Malta said, half joking.

Junior centerfielder Joe Demaio helped keep Eastern off the scoreboard in the second inning when he reached up and took away a potential home run off the bat of third baseman Davis Schneider.

Eastern would tie the game in the top of the fourth when Flacco walked, stole second and third, and scored on an RBI groundout by Collin Fabio. Schneider then hit a solo home run to center that just barely eluded Demaio to make it 2-2.

The Jags chased Eastern starting pitcher Alex Schwartz in the fourth inning with a four-run rally to open up a 6-2 lead. Catcher Nick Babin led off the fourth with a walk, but was forced out at second when Rich Rountree reached on a fielder’s choice. Kyle Lona drew a walk in the next at-bat, allowing Mike Schmidt to lay down a sacrifice bunt to move runners to second and third with two outs. Janofsky came to the plate and lasered a shot that went right past Schneider at third, bringing home Rountree and Lona for a 4-2 lead.

Jackson Memorial junior Brandon Janofsky scored two runs and hit a two-run single during a four-run fourth-inning. (Photo by Bob Badders).

“I was just trying to jump on a fastball,” Janofsky said. “He was working away all game, and he left one out over the plate a little bit. I was just trying to hit it hard and make them make a play.”

Johnson kept the rally going with an RBI single through the right side to score Janofsky, who had advanced to second on the throw home, to make it 5-2. That chased Schwartz, who gave way to senior Austin Friedant. Johnson then stole second, enabling him to score on Guarino’s single up the middle to give Jackson a 6-2 lead after four.

The Vikings got a run back in the fifth inning when No. 9 hitter Tyler Dixon and leadoff hitter Joe Caruso singled with one out. Dixon advanced to third on Caruso’s single and then scored on an RBI ground out by Tyler Travis.

Eastern drew even closer in the sixth inning when Keen singled and Fabio reached on a fielder’s choice to put runners on first and second with no outs. Keen then stole third with Fabio moving up to second on the play. Schneider followed with a two-run single to cut Jackson’s lead to 6-5. Guarino was able to settle down and and limit any further damage, however. After striking out Corey Kreston for the first out, Guarino picked off Schneider at first for the second out. Matt Woods reached on an error with two outs, but Guarino picked him off as well to end the inning.

Eastern stole six bases in the game and was constantly putting pressure on Jackson with its aggressive base running.

“I think as much as (Guarino’s) move is good, they were going first motion all game,” Malta said.

Guarino wrapped up Jackson’s first trip to the Group IV title game in four years in the seventh. He came out aggressive and throwing strikes, getting ahead of Dixon 1-2 before getting him to ground out to first. He then struck out Caruso with a 2-2 curveball for out No. 2. Travis worked a seven-pitch walk to put the tying run on base for Flacco, but Guarino again jumped out in front, 1-2, before striking him out to end the game.

Now the Jaguars will have the chance to bring home their first group title in over 40 years. When the Jags reached the Group IV final in 2010 it was with a juggernaut team that many expected to advance that deep into the postseason. This year’s squad began to stumble right when tournament time rolled around, losing to Barnegat and ace Jason Groome in the Ocean County Tournament and falling to Monmouth Regional in the first round of the Shore Conference Tournament. But they’ve turned it around when it has mattered most by riding a pair of pitchers and a lineup swinging the bat with confidence.

“We hit the skids in the midst of tournament time, but we kept challenging guys,” Malta said. “Credit to our guys. They toughened up a little bit."

“We just been very focused,” Guarino said. “We have one goal in mind and we’re striving every day to make it. We’re almost there.”


Box Score

Jackson Memorial 6, Eastern 5

Eastern  0 0 0 2 1 2 0 - 5 6 3

Jackson 2 0 0 4 0 0 X - 6 6 0

WP: Matt Guarino (8-1)

LP: Alex Schwartz

Home runs - E: Davis Schneider; JM: Matt Guarino.