TOMS RIVER – Point Boro pulled out all the stops to win its first state sectional title in 13 years, and that’s exactly what it takes to win in the NJSIAA postseason. There is no tomorrow if you don’t play for today.

The Panthers’ top two pitchers, Nick Guzzi and Sam Collins, delivered sensational performances in back-to-back games that helped secure the Central Jersey Group 2 championship on Friday, but with both going the distance it meant neither was available for Monday’s Group 2 semifinal game. It was a predicament, on paper, and would be for most teams, but for the Panthers, it was business as usual.

Senior Christian Aurin held West Deptford scoreless for the first five innings while Collins and Guzzi led an offensive eruption that sent the Panthers to an 8-4 victory over the Eagles at Toms River North’s Ryan Field to clinch a spot in Saturday’s state championship game. Collins went 5-for-5 with an RBI and three runs scored from the leadoff spot and Guzzi went 2-for-4 with three RBI to buoy a performance by Aurin that saw him keep West Deptford’s hitters off balance with his curveball.

It all added up to another playoff win for the Panthers, who will try to win it all on Saturday against Pascack Hills in the Group 2 championship game.

“We read everything and people were talking about how we don’t have this guy available or that guy available, but they should have been looking at (Aurin’s) ERA and what he’s done this year, because he’s been great for us,” said Point Boro head coach Dave Drew. “We were confident we’d be in this game no matter what.”

“I throw a lot of junk and I don’t throw hard, so I have to keep them on their toes,” said Aurin, who estimated it was just his third or fourth start of the season. “Sometimes they crush it, but they crush it to people. That’s my mental approach; let them hit it, but not smack it. The curveball was on today and it kept them off balance.”

Aurin struck out just two, walked five and hit a batter through the first five innings, but his approach prevented West Deptford from squaring up many of his offerings. The Eagles had just two hits through the first five innings – a leadoff double from Colby Garrison in the third and a pop-up to second off the bat of Gabe Finocchi that the wind got a hold of and helped guide to the turf in the fourth inning.

“On the bus, we were talking that if Christian’s curveball was on, they were going to have some trouble,” Drew said. “It was kind of the perfect matchup for Christian because they have some big swingers on their team and we felt like if we could get that curveball over for a strike we would be in a good situation.”

The Panthers pushed across three runs in the third inning to start their offensive barrage, but it was two innings prior they walked back to the dugout feeling confident against Finocchi. Collins led off the game with a single to left and Nick Zbikowski followed with an infield single on a perfectly placed bunt between the pitcher and third baseman. Finocchi induced a double-play grounder to squash the potential scoring situation, but Point Boro had set the tone.

“We were definitely confident after that first inning knowing we got two runners on, and it was just all good moving forward from there,” Collins said.

Cole Young and Collins started the top of the third with consecutive singles and Zbikowski reached on a fielder’s choice when he laid down a sacrifice bunt and Young beat the throw to third. With the bases loaded, Guzzi came through with a two-run single to left to give Point Boro a 2-0 edge. After a walk to cleanup hitter Paul Franceschini, Sam Young hit a sac fly to left field to plate Zbikowski for a 3-0 lead.

Point Boro tacked on three more runs in the fourth inning when Cole Young drew a one-out walk and Collins followed with a booming RBI triple to right-center field.  Zbikowski walked to put runners on first and third and Guzzi singled to bring home Collins and push the lead to 5-0. The Panthers’ sixth run crossed the plate when Sam Young reached on an error with two outs, which allowed Zbikowski to score from third.

West Deptford threatened in the bottom of the fourth when it loaded the bases with two out, but Franceschini made a diving stop in the hole between first and second and threw to Aurin covering at first for the final out.

Point Boro added two more runs in the sixth inning off relief pitcher Brian Gallagher. Collins singled to start the inning and Zbikowski reached base for the fourth straight at-bat when he was hit by a pitch. Guzzi reached on a fielder’s choice that forced Zbikowski at second and put runners on first and third with one out. After Franceschini walked, a wild pitch brought home both Collins from third and Guzzi from second as the lead ballooned to 8-0.

West Deptford finally broke through in the bottom of the sixth with a two-out rally. Gallagher singled to start the frame and Joey Esposito walked to put two on with nobody out. Aurin induced a double-play grounder off the bat of Finocchi but the next two runners reached to once again load the bases with two down. That was all for Aurin, who threw over 100 pitches. Sam Young came on in relief and Jack Murphy greeted him with a bases-clearing double that made the score 8-3. Murphy then went to third on a single to left by R.J. Mason. Young picked off Mason at first to end the inning, but Mason stayed in the rundown long enough to allow Murphy to score the Eagles’ fourth run.

West Deptford would get no closer, however, as Young worked around a leadoff walk to shut the door in the seventh and send the Panthers to the state final.

We were going into the game thinking, ‘we can do it, we can win’,” Collins said. “We have a solid team that can explode at any minute on offense and Christian has been a great pitcher all year not giving up many runs. Coming off last year losing in the sectional final and then winning the sectional final this year and being able to come out here today and play like we normally do is an awesome feeling.”

Getting back to a sectional championship game and finishing the job was the No. 1 goal for Point Boro this season, and it was an emotionally-draining 2-1 victory in eight innings over Robbinsville on Friday that set off a huge celebration. Re-focusing for another big-time game three days later could have been an issue for the Panthers, but they were able to find the proper balance.

“After we won the sectional championship we certainly weren’t satisfied,” Drew said. “We want to win every game we’re in. We gave the kids off both days and I’m sure most teams wouldn’t do that, but in that situation, we felt it was the right thing to do, to let them soak in the feeling of winning that championship and recharge for today.”

Now there’s only one more hill to climb – Pascack Hills to be precise. The Cowboys are the No. 6 team in the state according to NJ.com and will be the favorite, but the Panthers will have both Guzzi and Collins available for the maximum number of pitches.

“All credit to them, they’re a heck of a team, but we’ll be prepared for them and we’ll give them all we’ve got,” Drew said.

“It’s awesome, there’s nothing like it,” Aurin said. “Last high school game and we’re playing in the Group 2 final. You can’t ask for anything more.”

 

Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights.

 

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