A year removed from a surprise run through two postseason tournaments, the Point Pleasant Boro baseball team entered the 2019 campaign with elevated expectations and quickly got a reality check.

In the second game of the season, senior standout Sam Collins struggled on the mound, his defense struggled behind him and the Panthers dropped a 9-7 decision to Barnegat in the second game of the season.

After falling down, Point Boro bounced back up with 10 straight wins to stay in the race for the Shore Conference Class B South championship and took a 4-2 lead on Jackson Liberty into the final inning with its ace on the mound and a chance to pull into the driver’s seat for the title.

Again, the Panthers faltered, giving up three seventh-inning runs and losing to Jackson Liberty 5-4 to set off a string of three-straight losses that buried any hopes of a division championship.

Head coach Dave Drew knew there was a lot still on the table and all he had to do was convince his team that their time of the season – just as it was in 2018 – was still yet to come.

Mission: accomplished.

For the second straight season, Point Boro rounded into form in early May and this time around, the Panthers made program history by winning their first ever Ocean County Tournament championship, capturing their first NJSIAA sectional championship since 2006 and reaching the Group II final for the first time ever.

Drew and his team again showed the magic touch once tournament time hit and the ninth-year head coach at Point Boro – after leading his team to unprecedented success in one season and a No. 5 finish in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 – is the 2019 SSN Baseball Coach of the Year.

Point Boro coach Dave Drew and senior Paul Franceschini share a hug after winning the Ocean County Tournament. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Last year’s Point Boro team reached the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals as a No. 17 seed and made it all the way to the South Jersey Group II championship game as a No. 6 seed with a roster loaded with juniors and sophomores – including its pitching tandem of sophomore Nick Guzzi and the junior Collins.

Guzzi returned as a junior primed for a big leap forward and the St. John’s commit delivered, going 9-1 with a 1.23 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings. After a rough start to the season vs. Barnegat, Collins settled in and went 6-2 with a 1.04 ERA in 53 2/3 innings to form the other half of one of the Shore’s best one-two punches while also serving as the starting shortstop and leadoff hitter.

One might think winning two tournaments and reaching the Group II final was a simple task with a duo like Guzzi and Collins but Drew had to push the right buttons at key spots along the way. He kept the two co-aces lined up for the Ocean County Tournament at all costs, which turned out to be a pair of losses to Pinelands – which faced neither Guzzi nor Collins in the two-game set between the teams.

Point Boro, however, kept its eyes on the prize and beat Barnegat, 3-2, with Collins on the hill to survive the opening round of the OCT and unleashed Guzzi on Toms River South in the quarterfinals. Indians ace Gabe Driscoll nearly matched Guzzi and the Toms River South lineup struck out only five times, but the Panthers scratched across two runs and the defense stepped up behind its ace to secure a 2-0 win and a trip to the semifinals.

Point Boro coach Dave Drew. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Drew and Co. caught a break when No. 9 Toms River East stunned top-seeded Jackson Memorial in the quarterfinal round on the morning of Saturday, May 11 and rather than boarding a bus to Jackson Memorial for an afternoon tilt that same day, the Panthers waited on the Raiders to arrive at Point Pleasant. Guzzi got the ball and with the championship game scheduled for three night’s later, Drew pulled his ace after five innings with an 8-0 lead to keep him eligible for the championship game.

As it turned out, rain forced the game to Thursday and Toms River East made things interesting with four runs in the last two innings off Collins, but Point Boro sealed an 8-4 win and was heading to its first OCT final ever with a full pitching staff ready to go.

The championship game was an emotional roller-coaster against a Jackson Liberty team that beat Point Boro twice during the regular season and with a first ever OCT title on the line for both teams, Jackson Liberty again looked as though it would break Point Boro’s heart. The Panthers scored five runs in the first two innings to grab a commanding 5-0 lead, but Jackson Liberty erased the lead with a five-run third against Guzzi.

Jackson Liberty right-hander Nick DeCarlo settled in with scoreless innings in the third and fourth and Guzzi put up a zero in the fourth to fight off the momentum that swung to the Lions dugout. In the top of the fifth, the Panthers again showed their fighting spirit and erupted for five more runs to go up 10-5, keyed by a go-ahead two-run double by junior Sam Young. This time, the five-run lead was enough, as Point Boro closed out a 10-7 win for the program’s first county title.

The next goal for Point Boro was to finish what it started last year by winning the Central Jersey Group II championship. That meant holding Guzzi and Collins back in the Shore Conference Tournament and the result was senior Christian Aurin pitching against Wall in the quarterfinal round. The Panthers lost, 4-1, but Aurin showed he could handle a tough opponent.

The NJSIAA Tournament started well for Point Boro, with the Panthers battling past Monmouth Regional and ace Dante Ciaramella, 2-1, in nine innings, with Collins pitching 8 2/3 and driving in the winning run. Point Boro then clobbered A.L. Johnson, 17-3, on the road to earn a trip to top-seeded Governor Livingston. The game was postponed twice due to rain but Guzzi stayed ready and fired a one-hitter to pitch the Panthers to the sectional final round for the second straight year.

Collins turned in another big effort on the mound and at the plate in the Central Group II final vs. Robbinsville in Point Pleasant, where fans lined the fence to watch the Panthers pursue their first sectional title in 13 years. Despite that effort by Collins, Point Boro found itself tied, 1-1, with the Ravens after seven innings and needed extra innings to win the elusive title.

Collins pitched a scoreless eighth and Guzzi led the bottom of the inning off with a single. Senior Paul Franceschini bunted him to third and Young stepped up and hit the first pitch he saw into left field to score Guzzi with the championship-winning run. After his walk-off hit to win the title, Young credited the coaching staff with telling him to hunt a first-pitch curveball.

Point Boro’s celebration lasted two days before the Panthers had to head to Toms River for the Group II championship and the two-day delay in playing Governor Livingston meant both Guzzi and Collins were ineligible to pitch against perennial Group II contender West Deptford. Once again, Drew gave Aurin the ball and his senior answered the call with five shutout innings while the Panthers offense showed up at the perfect time with eight unanswered runs. West Deptford scored four late runs against Aurin and Young but the early damage carried Point Boro into the Group II championship game with both Guzzi and Collins fully rested and ready.

Awaiting the Panthers in the final was defending Group II champion Pascack Hills and ace Ryan Ramsey, who was drafted in the 36th round by the Cleveland Indians three days earlier. Collins led the game off with a single and moved all the way to third but Ramsey pitched out of the first-inning predicament. That single by Collins would be the only hit Ramsey allowed in a dominant performance.

Guzzi matched the Cowboys ace for five innings before Pascack Hills broke through with two runs in the sixth. Point Boro fell, 2-0, in its first ever trip to the Group II final but their coach, after thanking his senior class for their contributions in leading the program to new heights, already had next season – and the next step – in mind.

“Next year is already starting Monday night – we’ve got an American Legion game,” Drew said with Pascack Hills celebrating on the field behind him. “We’ll be ready for next year.”

 

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