Baseball – Shore Beats Ridgefield 7-1 to Win NJSIAA Group I Title
TOMS RIVER — After dispatching defending Group I champion Middlesex and stifling a juggernaut Pennsville team to reach the state final, the only task left for Shore Regional was to finish its journey by bringing home the program’s first state championship in 21 years.
Senior left-hander Matt Cosentino tossed a complete-game four-hitter with nine strikeouts, and also belted a two-run home run to put the finishing touches on the Blue Devils’ 7-1 victory over Ridgefield in the NJSIAA Group I title game Saturday afternoon at Toms River South’s Ken Frank Stadium.
Junior Sam Parrino drove in what ended up as the game-winning run with an RBI single in the fourth inning, and seniors Andrew Schulz, Clayton Coffey and Nick Blaney each had two hits and scored a run to deliver Shore its second Group championship and first since it won Group II in 1993.
“Honestly, it’s a dream come true,” said Cosentino, who struck out designated hitter Michael Ragone to end the game.
“Freshman year I played varsity and we played in Group II, and we were terrible. Sophomore year we got a little better and junior year we came close and got a taste. It felt like this was meant to happen. We had the feeling we were going to come here and take care of business.”
“I got the chills,” said Schulz, a senior captain. “It’s a great feeling to finally accomplish what we wanted to.”
Cosentino, a George Washington University commit, allowed one run on four hits, striking out nine and walking three on 114 pitches. In addition to his two-run home run that landed on the roof of the school, he reached on an error in the fifth inning, stole second and third, and came around to score on Blaney’s sacrifice fly that gave Shore (19-9) a 5-1 lead. On the mound, he kept his tremendous postseason roll going by mixing his four pitches effectively to silence yet another opposing lineup. In three state tournament starts, Cosentino allowed three runs on 11 hits while striking out 22 in 21 innings.
“I’ve been coaching at Shore for nine years, and he’s the guy when we looked at him in eighth grade we knew we had something special,” said Shore head coach Pat O’Neill, who is in his third season as manager after starting as an assistant. “He’s a bulldog, he’s a competitor. He’s just tremendous.”
Playing a Group II schedule in the Shore Conference’s Class A Central division against the likes of Red Bank Catholic, Rumson-Fair Haven and St. John Vianney, the latter of which captured the Non-Public A state title hours after Shore won its title, had the Blue Devils as prepared as possible for a state tournament run. And after avenging its loss to Middlesex in last season’s Central Jersey Group I final by beating the Blue Jays in the sectional semifinals, then taking out a Pennsville team that was considered the best in Group I, their confidence was at an all-time high. Cosentino knew if his team happened to fall behind it would rally back, and he also knew an early lead would let him work his magic.
“I told them in the first or second inning to just get me a couple,” Cosentino said. “I knew if I had a couple runs I could make some pitches and really throw their hitters off.”
Shore put runners on base in the first and second innings, and finally broke through against Ridgefield starter Eamon Catherina in the third inning. Coffey led off with a single and stole second. After Schulz lined out to left field and Cosentino went down on strikes, junior third baseman James Kelly delivered the timely hit Shore was waiting for by lacing an RBI double to bring home Coffey and stake the Blue Devils to a 1-0 lead.
“We’ve left a small country on the bases this year, but we kept hitting the ball hard and eventually James came through with that big hit,” O’Neill said. “You could see as soon as we scored that first run it really calmed us down.”
Meanwhile, Shore’s defense was on point any time a runner did reach base for Ridgefield (20-11). Chris Martucci led off the second inning with a single, but was forced out at second on a grounder by Jordan Neira. Cosentino then picked Neira off first base for the second out. He hit Syam Lafi with a 1-1 pitch, but Blaney threw Lafi out trying to steal second. Cosentino threw just 10 pitches that inning.
In the third, Cosentino made a tremendous individual play to keep Ridgefield off the board. After issuing a leadoff walk to Vin Cumella, Cosentino made an incredible diving, over-the-shoulder catch on an infield pop-up by Joe Biggiani, then quickly recovered to double up Cumella at first. He then struck out Ragone to end the third, letting out a primal scream as he walked off the mound.
“I had no idea where the runner was,” Cosentino said. “I was looking over my shoulder for the ball and I could sense Andrew (Schulz) at second. I slid and caught the ball and was able to get him at first.”
Shore pushed its lead to 3-0 in the fourth inning thanks to a tremendous at-bat by Parrino. Designated hitter Dylan Vosk reached on an infield single to start the inning, and moved to second on a one-out sacrifice bunt by Matt McCarthy. With two outs, Catherina quickly got ahead of Parrino 0-2, but the junior fouled off four straight pitches before singling up the middle to bring home Vosk and give the Blue Devils a 2-0 advantage.
“That is as quality an at-bat as it gets,” Cosentino said. “The bottom of the order is the unsung hero of our team. They started slow in the beginning of the year, but come crunch time they’ve come through for us. The thing about this team is there’s a different hero every game.”
“The kids have been doing that all year,” O’Neill said. “That was a huge at-bat. These kids are gritty and they fight.”
Ridgefield got one back in the bottom of the fourth when Neira smacked a two-out RBI single to bring home Catherina, who was hit by a pitch to start the inning and stole second. Shore would get that run back, however, when Cosentino reached on an error to start the top of the fifth, stole second and third, and scored on Blaney’s sacrifice fly to right field.
After laboring a bit with 33 pitches in the fourth inning, Cosentino came right back with a 12-pitch fifth inning in which he worked around a one-out triple by Biggiani. Both Cosentino and Martucci, who relieved Catherina after five innings, pitched 1-2-3 sixth innings to set the stage for the seventh. Schulz singled with one out in the top of the seventh and came around to score when Cosentino blasted a 1-1 fastball onto the roof of the school in right-centerfield, giving Shore a 6-1 lead.
“I took a big hack on my first swing and I was thinking just stay short and go to right-center like I know I can,” Cosentino said. “The kid laid a 1-1 fastball right over the plate, and I just tried to take it the other way. As soon as I hit it I knew it was out.”
Kelly was hit by a pitch in the following at-bat, and scored on Blaney’s RBI double for a 7-1 lead. Cosentino then came out for the seventh to close out Shore’s phenomenal run to a state title. He struck out Lafi on four pitches for out No. 1, then got Cumella to pop up to second. Biggiani singled with two outs, but Cosentino blew a 3-2 fastball past Ragone for the final out. He dropped to his knees as Blaney raced toward him from home plate, followed by the rest of his teammates piling on top in the middle of the infield.
“This means everything,” O’Neill said. “This is where we wanted to get, and we knew we had the talent to do it.”
“There was never any sense of panic,” Cosentino said. “We are the most battle-tested Group I team and that gave us the confidence we needed. I couldn’t be more proud of this team.”
Shore 7, Ridgefield 1
Shore (19-9) 0 0 1 2 1 0 3 - 7 11 0
Ridgefield (20-11) 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 - 1 4 1
WP: Matt Cosentino (8-1).
LP: Eamon Catherina (7-2).
Doubles - S: Andrew Schulz, James Kelly, Nick Blaney.
Triples - R: Joe Biggiani.
Home runs - S: Matt Cosentino.