SOUTH RIVER - For a team that had not finished above .500 in any of the previous four seasons, the Keyport High School baseball team made more than a fair share of progress this season, but that did not take any of the sting away from that season coming to an end on Friday in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I final.

South River senior right-hander Tyler Higgins took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and finished off a one-hit shutout with 13 strikeouts to pitch his Rams - the top seed in the Central Jersey Group I bracket - past the Red Raiders, 5-0, for their first ever sectional championship.

"I was just thinking about winning the game," Higgins said. "I prepared for this game today with the goal of winning it. Nobody comes into a championship game thinking about throwing a no-hitter, so was never the goal at any point. If I got it, that would have been awesome, but I just wanted to get this win for our team."

Shane Chandler (left) and Keyport saw their run to the Central Jersey Group I final end Friday at South River. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Higgins walked Keyport left fielder Evan Smutz with one out in the top of the fifth to end his perfect game bid, but South River catcher Matt Leviton quickly erased the baserunner by throwing Smutz out at second base on an attempted steal.

"We had the scouting report (on Higgins)," said Keyport coach Kyle Keelen, who was part of a Keansburg team that fell victim to a perfect game by South Amboy's Joe Bartlinski in the 2004 Central Jersey Group I final. "We knew what he was going to do and he did it. He did a great job. When you have (catcher Matt) Leviton behind the plate giving him a great target and a great frame, that's a one two bunch that makes it hard."

Keyport leadoff hitter and second baseman Jackson Aumack led the top of the seventh off with a check-swing ground ball that rolled far enough past Higgins to allow Aumack to beat the play at first for an infield hit. Higgins followed with a strikeout, a fielder's choice and capped his gem with his 13th strikeout. Keyport only reached second base against him when Shane Chandler took second on defensive indifference with two out.

Higgins is a four-year varsity performer as a pitcher and a three-year regular in the Rams rotation. He saved his best high school start for his most important game - on top of striking out 13 with just one walk and one infield single allowed, he needed only 81 pitches to finish the game. Of those 81 pitches, 57 were strikes.

"Everything was working," Higgins said. "I have a curveball that I like to drop in for a strike early in the count and that was working as a strikeout pitch today. I was able to change speeds and keep them off balance enough to get them to swing and miss at my fastball."

The Rams scored two unearned runs off Keyport starter Kenny Harrigan in the bottom of the first due to a catcher's interference call on the first batter of the game. Harrigan walked the next batter and after retiring two straight, Rams second baseman Dalton Dougherty ripped an RBI single to right to open the scoring. South River stole a second run with a double-steal, with Khaliyl Everett scoring on a high return throw to the plate.

"What killed us, being so immature at this point in the playoffs, is that first inning," Keelen said. "It brings you down real quick. We weren't used to that in the playoffs. We were up in the previous two games for the most part and when we weren't, it was one run. This was a new experience for them and against a pitcher like that, it definitely changes the game when you fall behind."

South River shortstop and leadoff hitter Brandon Szerszen drove in the final three runs for the home team. He capped a two-out rally in the third with an RBI single to score Michael DeSantis, then ripped a two-run single to left in the bottom of the third with one out.

"We haven't been a very aggressive offensive team this year, but we looked to be more aggressive today," Higgins said. "We wanted to put the ball in play against them and try to run once we got on just to keep the pressure on."

Harrigan was charged with all five runs, but only one was earned. The senior pitched 5 1/3 innings, gave up four hits, walked five and struck out three before giving way to junior Christian Smith. Harrigan entered the sixth with 93 pitches and left having thrown 107.

South River celebrates its first Central Jersey Group I championship. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Entering Friday's game, Harrigan had not allowed a run during the state tournament, tossing six scoreless innings in a 6-0 win over Dunellen and closing out a 5-4 win over South Amboy Tuesday with a scoreless seventh. Although he entered the season as a depth pitcher, Harrigan emerged as one of Keyport's top pitchers and an all-B-Central performer.

"From last year to this year, Kenny has improved 110 percent," Keelen said. "He was an all-division guy with 51 strikeouts this year and you look at a senior that's improve in four years and you go, 'That's what we want.' That's what we want the underclassmen to see. I'm proud of Kenny. I'm proud of (catcher) Kyle Mitchell. He did a phenomenal job behind the plate calling the game. They just got the big hits in the big situations and we couldn't get any."

During 2016, Keyport posted a winning record and finished third in the Class B Central division standings behind only non-public rivals St. Rose and Mater Dei Prep. Keyport won 10 divisional games, including a walkoff, 2-1 win over division champion St. Rose in the second meeting between the teams.

Next season, the Red Raiders will return two of their top three pitchers in Smith and Shane Chandler, along with starters Aumack, Kyle Johnson and sophomore Colin Fernandez.

"Coming into the season, the expectation was to be here," Keelen said. "I even said before the season, we were going to make the late run. We stepped up our scrimmage schedule to get ready. The guys knew the expectations and they knew it was no joke around here. Next year, we have to replace a catcher and a pitcher-slash-outfielder and we're there. We expect to be back."


Box Score

South River 5, Keyport 0

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 R H E
Keyport (13-11) 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 3
South River (19-7-1) 2 0 0 1 0 2 x 5 5 0


Keyport IP H R ER BB SO
Kenny Harrigan (L, 4-3) 5.1 4 5 1 5 3
Christian Smith 0.2  1 0 0 0 0
South River IP H R ER BB SO
Tyler Higgins (W, 8-1) 7 1 0 0 1 13

Top Hitters

Keyport Game Stats
Jackson Aumack 1-3
South River Game Stats
Brandon Szerszen 2-4, R, 3 RBI
Dalton Dougherty 1-2, BB, RBI
Michael DeSantis 1-2, BB, 2 R, 2 SB
James Hart 1-2, BB, R, SB