Baseball – 2022 Group IV Final Preview: Short-handed Howell Looks to Pull of One More Shocker
NJSIAA Group IV Championship
Saturday, June 18, 2022
At DeMeo Field, Veterans Park, Hamilton
Howell (24-6) vs. Hunterdon Central (25-4), 1 p.m.
Howell at a Glance
Head Coach: Eric Johnson
Last Group Championship: Never
Last Group Championship Appearance: 1994
Probable Starting Pitcher
Nick Barracato, Sr., RHP (0-1, 2.68 ERA, 15.2 IP, 17 H, 7 BB, 14 K)
Notable Relief Pitchers
Jason Pace, Sr., RHP
Ryan Bilello, Sr., LHP
Russell Halvorsen, Jr., RF (.430, 9 2B, 1 3B, 6 HR, 32 R, 17 RBI, 10 SB)
Thomas Strauch, Sr., SS (.351, 11 2B, 1 3B, 10 HR, 25 R, 39 RBI, 4 SB)
Joe Zito, So., 3B (.333, 9 2B, 2 HR, 24 R, 19 RBI, 4 SB)
Braden Walsh, So., 1B (.293, 5 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 19 R, 30 RBI, 3 SB)
Nick Todisco, Sr., LF (.272, 3 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 27 R, 9 RBI, 5 SB)
Devon Smith, Sr., CF (.240, 8 2B, 2 HR, 22 R, 14 RBI, 8 SB)
Jeremiah Wojenski, Sr., C (.294, 4 2B, 12 R, 16 RBI, 1 SB)
Nick Gallo, Sr., 2B (.200, 2 2B, 2 HR, 12 R, 15 RBI, 1 SB)
Road to the Final
First Round: Dan Furlong pitched a 74-pitch complete game and the Rebels jumped on Manalapan ace Tyler Kane early with a two-run double by Nick Gomes in the first inning on the way to a 3-1 win over the No. 15 Braves.
Quarterfinal: Gomes turned in another huge game for Howell, pitching a complete game with nine strikeouts and no walks and ignited a four-run sixth inning with a triple as the Rebels edged No. 7 Monroe, 5-4. Thomas Strauch broke a 1-1 tie with an RBI double to score Gomes and Furlong followed with an RBI single. Jeremiah Wojenski made it 4-1 with an RBI double and Joe Zito capped the five-run inning with an RBI single. Gomes gave up three unearned runs in the seventh thanks to his own throwing error, but completed the game to push Howell into the next round.
Semifinal: Furlong took a shutout into the seventh inning for the second straight game and staved off a rally by No. 3 Jackson Memorial to pitch Howell to a 3-2 win and its first sectional final appearance since 1994. Howell struck for two runs in the bottom of the second thanks to two walks, two Jaguars errors and an RBI single by Devon Smith, who also made a diving catch in centerfield to secure the final out of the game.
Sectional Final: Russell Halvorsen led off the bottom of the first with a home run to tie the game and Zito blasted a two-run shot to open up a 6-1 Howell lead as the Rebels went on to beat No. 9 East Brunswick, 8-2, to capture the program’s first sectional title since 1994. Gomes allowed one run in four innings before leaving with a broken wrist he sustained while sliding into second. Jason Pace finished the game with six strikeouts in three innings, including three in a row in the seventh.
Group Semifinal: After Furlong was struck in the jaw by a line drive on the fourth pitch of the game, senior Nick Barracato came on to throw seven shutout innings of shutout relief and Howell scored the winning run on an unusual wild pitch in the top of the ninth inning to pull out a gutty, 2-1, extra-inning win over South Jersey champion Cherokee to advance to the Group IV final. Joe Zito doubled in the ninth and pinch-runner Jack Gartenstein scored from third when a wild pitch got lodged in the backstop netting. Pace pitched the last two innings lock up the win.
Hunterdon Central at a Glance
Head Coach: Kevin Cuozzi
Last Group Championship: 2018
Probable Starting Pitcher
Kyle McCoy, Sr., LHP (7-0, 0.00 ERA, 32.1 IP, 14 H, 3 BB, 57 K)
Notable Relief Pitchers
James Scott, Jr., LHP
Jake Stollar, Sr., RHP
Logan Mason, Sr., RHP
Chase Fischer, Sr., 1B (.397, 8 2B, 3 HR, 21 R, 20 RBI, 3 SB)
Christian Petino, Sr., CF (.345, 9 2B, 4 3B, 2 HR, 34 R, 19 RBI, 9 SB)
Mike Contiliano, So., 3B (.379, 12 2B, 1 HR, 24 R, 26 RBI, 8 SB)
Nick Ferri, Sr., LF (.412, 3 2B, 2 3B, 1 HR, 24 R, 19 RBI, 9 SB)
Ryan Facinelli, Sr., SS (.352, 8 2B, 1 3B, 24 R, 15 RBI, 10 SB)
Chase Moskowitz, Sr., 2B (.357, 5 2B, 1 3B, 16 R, 22 RBI, 2 SB)
Logan Mason, Sr., RF (.352, 7 2B, 27 R, 26 RBI, 8 SB)
Brandon Padre, Sr., C (.325, 8 2B, 1 HR, 16 R, 17 RBI, 5 SB)
Jared Cassella, Sr., DH (.316, 5 2B, 1 3B, 19 R, 20 RBI, 9 SB)
Road to the Final
First Round: James Scott pitched three one-hit, shutout innings with five strikeouts and all nine starters had at least one hit with eight driving in at least one run as Hunterdon Central rolled to a 14-0 win over No. 16 Phillipsburg.
Quarterfinal: Mike Contiliano doubled and drove in four runs to lead another run-scoring outburst that powered the Red Devils to a 16-1 win over No. 9 Elizabeth. Maryland commit Kyle McCoy allowed an unearned run on three hits in 4 innings to pick up the win.
Semifinal: No. 4 Watchung Hills slowed down the red-hot Red Devils offense, but Hunterdon Central still managed more than enough offense in a 4-0 win. James Scott struck out 10 in six one-hit innings and Nick Ferri had the big swing with a solo home run.
Sectional Final: Mason struck out 12 over 5 1/3 scoreless innings while Nick Ferri (2-for-2, triple, two runs, RBI) and Chase Fischer (2-for-3, two doubles) led the lineup in a 5-1 Hunterdon Central win over No. 3 Woodbridge that delivered the Red Devils their seventh sectional championship since 2008.
Group Semifinal: Trailing North Jersey 2 champion Livingston, 1-0, in the bottom of the sixth, Hunterdon Central got consecutive doubles from Logan Mason, Fischer and Brandon Padre to surge in front and Mason closed out the 2-1 win on the mound to send the Red Devils to the Group IV championship game.
A Closer Look
After pulling out a huge, 3-2, win over Jackson Memorial in the Central Jersey Group IV semifinals, everything appeared to be falling into place for Howell. The Rebels would host the Central Group IV championship against an East Brunswick team that, while hot in the tournament, struggled to score runs and once they got by the Bears in the championship game, senior ace Dan Furlong would be eligible to start however many games Howell had the rest of the way. With Furlong’s propensity for efficiency (he needed just 74 and 83 pitches to pitch two complete games in the NJSIAA Tournament), there looked like a good chance he would pitch every single inning the rest of the way for Howell.
Things have not, however, gone as Howell laid them out. No. 2 starter Nick Gomes broke his wrist sliding into second base during the 8-2 win over East Brunswick and Furlong got knocked out of Howell’s 2-1 win over Cherokee Monday when a line drive struck him in the face on the fourth pitch of the game, breaking his jaw in two places.
While those two losses had the chance to be catastrophic for Howell, you might notice that, despite losing their two best pitchers, the Rebels will nevertheless be playing for their first ever Group IV championship on Saturday. They can thank senior right-handers Nick Barracato and Jason Pace for that, as the duo has stepped in and pitched more than admirably with Gomes and Furlong injured. Pace closed out both wins over East Brunswick and Cherokee and will again be waiting in the wings to pitch in relief on Saturday.
If Barracato pitches like he did on Monday at Cherokee, Pace might not even be needed on Saturday. Barracato did not allow an earned run in seven innings and if not for Cherokee ace Jeremy Cheeseman matching him to send the game to extra innings, Barracato might have picked up a complete-game victory.
With only 15 2/3 innings of work this year, Barracato will be the least experienced pitcher starting in any of the six NJSIAA Group final games, but in his limited work, Barracato has earned coach Eric Johnson’s trust. He came in to stabilize a Monmouth County Tournament game against Wall that Howell ended up losing, 12-11, but with Barracato giving up just one unearned run in three innings. The senior right-hander enters Saturday with nine straight scoreless innings.
If Barracato are two hot pitchers based on the last two or three appearances, Hunterdon Central’s Saturday starter is scorching. Junior left-hander Kyle McCoy has yet to allow an earned run all season and although he has been used rather sparingly over the course of the season, he has still managed to rack up 57 strikeouts in just 32 1/3 innings with just three walks allowed.
In addition to trying to match zeros with McCoy, Barracato will have to deal with a Red Devils lineup that has nine hitters that boast a batting average better than .300. Howell, on the other hand, is dangerous at the top of the order with Russell Halvorsen and Thomas Strauch in the Nos. 1 and 3 spots, but Furlong and Gomes were both middle-of-the-order bats as well and will be missed.
Howell has embraced the underdog role as well as any team can and will relish another chance to prove the Rebels are being overlooked. With one more victory – and this one will be the hardest-earned run yet – Howell will cement itself as one of the state’s best teams.
Prediction: Hunterdon Central, 7-1