JACKSON - For an instant, Kyle Thaiss was caught in no man’s land, his instincts betrayed and forced to be resolved through a quick reaction…and subsequently quicker feet.

Inserted as a pinch runner in the bottom of the seventh of a scoreless contest, the Jackson Memorial senior broke from third, eager to deliver the winning run as Ryan Lasko’s sinking line drive with the bases loaded sizzled into right field. However, when the ball was caught, so too was Thaiss, half way down the line and desperately scrambling to get back to the bag. The distance enough to lure a throw by Shawnee in a bid for a sudden, rally-killing double play.

“I thought it was dropping,” Thaiss admitted. “It looked like a nice hit. I had to go back to the base and thank God I did or that throw would never have happened.”

The heave sailed over the third baseman’s head, giving Thaiss a window to make amends. He seized the opportunity with the utmost efficiency, retreating to third in rapid fashion to tag before retracing his steps in blistering style. This time, he reached his initial destination, completing his whirlwind journey with an elusive slide at the plate to deliver the game’s only run in dramatic style and vault third-seeded Jackson Memorial past ninth-seeded Shawnee for a 1-0 triumph and the NJSIAA South Jersey, Group 4 sectional title.

The victory sends the Jaguars (25-6) to the Group 4 state semifinals on Tuesday at Rider University where they will encounter Hunterdon Central, which blanked Manalapan, 4-0, in the Central Jersey final.

The way it’s latest win was achieved was based in so many of the intangibles that have come to define Jackson Memorial during coach Frank Malta’s 14-year tenure. The Jaguars relied on the fearless tenacity offered from sophomore left-hander Nick Beetel, who fanned eight, walked none and conceded one hit working into the sixth, and senior righty Mike Dimino, who struck out four and countered the leadoff man getting aboard in the sixth and seventh by retiring the next three batters, four on strikeouts.

Then, there was the grit and resourcefulness that hatched an uprising in the seventh, initiated by sophomore Carmine Petosa, who got things rolling with a hit by pitch before being replaced by Thaiss. After an ensuing sacrifice bunt attempt materialized into a pop up to the pitcher, Dimino reached on a throwing error and hustled into second on the play with Thaiss advancing to third.

Shawnee issued an intentional walk to sophomore third baseman Jake Wendell to load the bases, setting up the potential for a force out at the plate or, better yet, a double play.

Instead, Thaiss darted for the dish on Shawnee’s second throwing error of the frame, and slid around a tag to spark a jubilant celebration marking Jackson Memorial’s first sectional crown since 2014, when it claimed the overall Group 4 state title.

“I caught him pretty quickly,” Malta said of getting Thaiss’ attention once the catch was made in right field. “The ball got out there so fast. As he was coming back, I saw the throw and just yelled to him, get back, tag and go because I knew it was over (the third baseman’s) head. Kyle did a great job. He’s an athlete, he can fly, he can move and he made a great slide.”

While the circuitous playmaking of Thaiss produced the headline, the meat of the story was the work Beetel and Dimino put forth on the mound. Working ahead of hitters with a savvy blend of his tantalizing curveball to enhance the explosiveness to a sharp fastball, Beetel retired 11 straight before yielding Shawnee’s only hit, a clean single by Dalton Short with two outs in the fifth. Unfazed, Beetel countered with his third strikeout of the frame to close matters without issue.

 

He exited after hitting the leadoff batter in the sixth only to have Dimino, who has embraced his niche as the Jaguars’ closer, offer the necessary support. A wild pitch allowed Short to take second, but that’s where he stayed as Dimino struck out two of the next three batters to escape unharmed and keep a scoreless contest intact.

Their efforts were demand due to Shawnee starter, Jackson Balzan. The junior left-hander handcuffed the Jags for 6 1/3 innings, limiting them to one hit - an infield single by sophomore second Christian Pellone in the third - while collecting a pair of strikeouts and 10 fly ball outs against a single walk.

Shawnee (17-9) threatened again in the seventh. Cole Fleming reached on an error and was awarded second on a balk. Not a problem for Dimino, who got an assist from catcher Andrew Sefick’s diving catch of a bunt just up the third-base line for the first out. Dimino handled the rest with two strikeouts, infusing energy that translated into what unfolded in the bottom half.

“The balk call revved me up,” said Dimino. “It got me heated on the inside and I told myself I was striking out the next two kids. I love it. Adrenalin is what pushes me and gets me going. I wanted to get out of that inning and there was no way that runner on second was scoring.”

Shawnee (17-9)                   000         000         0 --- 0 1 4
Jackson Memorial (25-6)     000         000         1 --- 1 1 2

WP-Mike Dimino
LP-Jackson Balzan