TOMS RIVER - The Manasquan baseball team entered the NJSIAA Tournament one loss away from a lost season - one that started promising enough, but had spiraled out of control in the weeks leading up to the South Jersey Group II playoffs.

While the late-season nosedive might have been enough to sink the seasons of most teams, the Warriors had something most teams don't: two aces.

One of those aces, senior right-hander Connor Muly, pitched Manasquan to a championship for the second time in eight days Saturday at Toms River High School East, where he fired a complete game against Whippany Park to lead the Warriors to a 7-3 win that clinched the program its first overall state title since 1986.

"We challenged them (before the tournament)," said Manasquan coach Bob Waldeyer, whose team was 1-6 in seven games heading into the state tournament after starting the season 9-4. "It was the players who made the plays; they deserve the credit. We're playing with the same guys we have all year. They just stepped up and played exceptional defense and excellent baseball. Our pitching was excellent and they got key hits against good pitching."

PHOTO GALLERY: Manasquan vs. Whippany Park, Group II Final

Photo by Matt Manley

Coming off a 1-0 shutout of defending Group II champion West Deptford in the South Jersey Group II final on June 2, Muly benefited from early run support and solid defense Saturday.  He pitched a seven-pitch first inning thanks to an inning-ending double play and by the time he took the mound in the top of the second, Muly's offense had staked him to a 3-0 lead.

"I was a lot more nervous going into the West Deptford game," Muly said. "It was on the road, plus I knew how good of a team they were. Being able to pitch the way I did down there and winning that game made me a lot more confident coming into today. I know (Whippany Park) had been swinging the bats well, but I had confidence my guys would play well behind me."

Muly encountered some trouble over his seven innings and 88 pitches, but limited the damage and made pitches when he needed to. By the end of his final high school outing for the Warriors, he allowed two earned runs on eight hits while striking out five and walking one.

The three runs Whippany Park scored were the most Manasquan has surrendered during its six-game run to a state championship, which underscores the quality work that both Muly and senior left-hander Tommy Sheehan turned in over the last three weeks. Both Warriors starters went 3-0 during the Group II Tournament, with Sheehan allowing just one earned run on six hits over 20 innings and Muly surrendering four earned runs on 15 hits in 21 innings.

"All year, they've been big for us," senior catcher Adam Schreck said. "Tommy wouldn't talk on the bus on day's when he's pitching. Connor is goofball, so he's always loose and that's how you know he's dialed in. They're different, but they both get the job done."

"Having those two guys going out to the mound for us every day and competing - that's what we had to rely on to win," sophomore third baseman James Harmstead said. "We just needed to score a couple of runs and we were good."

The top of Manasquan's order got right to work Saturday in the first inning against Wildcats junior right-hander Kyle Lisa (8-3). Junior center fielder Tommy Antonucci singled through the middle, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by junior second baseman Ethan Thompson and dashed home when Sheehan shot a single through the left side for an RBI single.

After advancing to second base on the throw home and moving to third on a wild pitch, Sheehan got to trot home when Harmstead crushed a two-run home run over the fence in left field to bury Whippany Park in a 3-0 hole in the first inning. Harmstead worked the count to 2-1 and turned on a fastball on the inner half of the plate.

"I was just thinking dead-red fastball the whole at-bat," Harmstead said. "I knew his offspeed wasn't working too well at that point. He got me 0-1 and then he threw me two balls, so I just thought, 'Okay, I'm just going to sit on a fastball.' It was something we needed to get us going."

Muly struck out the first two batters of the second inning and after a walk to right fielder Daniel Scalley and a single by third baseman Alex Maitta with two out, the Warriors right-hander added one more punchout to strikeout the side around the two baserunners.

"It made me 10 times more comfortable," Muly said of the early run support. "In the first innings, we got those three runs. It was ridiculous."

The Warriors added another run in the second when freshman shortstop Will Hopkinson singled with one out, stole second base, reached third on a wild pitch and darted home on a passed ball with two out. Lisa notched a big strikeout of Antonucci with Hopkinson on third for the second out and jumped ahead of Thompson 1-2 before the third pitch of the at-bat escaped the glove of catcher Mike Roma and rolled to the backstop.

Muly gave up his two earned runs in the top of the third on RBI doubles by second baseman Kyle Dangler and shortstop Brian Clarke.

Manasquan gave Muly some more breathing room in the fifth with three unearned runs against Lisa. Thompson got the rally started by reaching on an error with one out and moving to second on a wild pitch. After Lisa struck out Sheehan for the second out, he issued a four-pitch walk to Harmstead and uncorked a wild pitch to set the Warriors up with runners on second and third and two out.

Schreck hit a ground ball to Clarke at shortstop and beat out the play after Clarke double clutched. Thompson strolled to the plate from third and Harmstead barreled home right behind him to give Manasquan a 6-2 lead on the close call at first.

"I have catcher's speed, so there's not much there," Schreck joked. "I couldn't really hit today. I rolled over the the shortstop four times in a row, so I'm just happy I beat it out and contributed to the team win."

Courtesy runner Damaso Jame caught a break when he was picked off at first base but reached second when first baseman Nick Geroldi threw too high to Clarke at shortstop. Jaime then moved to third on a balk and scored on a two-out single to center by freshman first baseman Alex Galvan on a 0-2 pitch.

Muly pitched scoreless ball in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, allowing just one baserunner during that stretch on a double by Roma with two out in the fourth. The senior, however, complained to Waldeyer of a calf injury during the sixth and despite sitting at just 71 pitchers, the Manasquan skipper prepared himself to pull Muly in the seventh by warming up Harmstead.

The seventh inning started with consecutive singles by Maitta and Roma, and No. 9 hitter Nick Nanarone reached on an error by Harmstead to load the bases with nobody out.

Muly responded by inducing a ground ball to shortstop, where Hopkinson started the 6-4-3 double play to wipe out one of the baserunners while one scored and the other went to third. Muly then jumped ahead of Dangler 0-2 and coaxed another ground ball to Hopkinson, who calmly fielded the ball and fired to first for the final out.

Hopkinson turned in a strong game in the field to go with his 1-for-3 game at the plate. He started two double plays, made a slick back-handed stop and throw for an out during Muly's one-two-three fifth inning, and took care of the final out of the game.

Whippany Park entered Saturday a hot lineup, scoring 54 runs in its first five tournament games. The Wildcats are now 0-5 all time in group championship games.

Saturday's win capped a Manasquan run that seemed unlikely three weeks ago and an individual season for Muly that few in the Manasquan program saw coming. Waldeyer was comfortable going into the season with Muly as his No. 2 starter but had no idea that he would have a season that rivaled that of Sheehan - who is heading to pitch at Notre Dame next year.

"He was the difference-maker in our season," Waldeyer said of Muly, who will pitch at Old Dominion next year. "We knew what we had with Tommy and he was what we expected, even though he struggled with throwing strikes sometimes. With Muly, he's just been outstanding. He's efficient - he was at 71 pitches after six innings today. Tommy will usually be up at 90 (through six) because he's striking guys out and Muly will get his strikeouts, but he'll do it while being very efficient."

Muly was effective as a junior, but only pitched 14 innings in which he struck out 18, walked five and pitched to a 3.28 ERA. Between his junior and senior seasons, he began to experiment more with a lower arm slot that effectively made him a sidearm pitcher. His adjustment was initially met with some skepticism from his coaches, but early on in the season, the new arm angle was too effective to deny.

"I started trying the lower arm slot during last high school season, but the coaches didn't really want me messing around with it," Muly said. "I worked on it over the summer and I came back this year and I think they saw it work early in the season against Middletown North. I had 10 (strikeouts) and three hits and I think that's when I knew it was going to work for me."

"We had a game against Wall where he started coming up with his release point and he got hit," Waldeyer said. "At that point, we just said, 'It's working for you down there, so stay down there.'"

Manasquan's seniors celebrated their senior prom on Friday night, celebrated a state championship on the field on Saturday, and then celebrated with the community in the form of a Parade down Main St. in Manasquan following the game.

"The baseball part of it is great, but I wanted them to be able to experience the celebration," Waldeyer said. "They already won a sectional championship and made a great run, but this is a great experience. The community really comes out and shows support for things like this and I'm glad they get to experience it."

 

Box Score

Manasquan 7, Whippany Park 3

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 R H E
Whippany Park (15-10) 0 0 2 0 0 0 1 3 8 3
Manasquan (16-10) 3 1 0 0 3 0 X 7 6 2

 

Pitching

Whippany Park IP H R ER BB SO PC
Kyle Lisa (L, 8-3) 5 6 7 3 2 6 93
Brian Clarke 1 0 0 0 3 2 25
Manasquan IP H R ER BB SO PC
Connor Muly (W, 6-3) 7 8 3 2 1 5 88

 

Top Hitters

Whippany Park Game Stats
Kyle Dangler 2-4, 2B, R, RBI
Alex Maitta 2-3, R
Mike Roma 2-3, 2B
Brian Clarke 1-3, 2B, RBI
Nick Nanarone 1-3, R
Manasquan Game Stats
James Harmstead 1-2, HR, 2 BB, 2 R, 2 RBI
Adam Schreck 1-4, 2 RBI
Tommy Sheehan 1-4, RBI
Alex Galvan 1-3, RBI
Will Hopkinson 1-3, R, SB
Tommy Antonucci 1-3, BB, R

 

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