WALL TWP. - The two teams in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III final on Friday were hoping to clinch one half of back-to-back sectional championships - one on the back end and one on the front end.

Seeking its second straight title, third-seeded Allentown continued to show that while most of the key pieces from last year's Group III championship team, the winning tradition did not.

The Redbirds stormed out of the gate Friday with four runs in the top of the first inning and held off a rally from top-seeded Wall to win, 6-5, and capture the program's second straight sectional title.

"Being in this tournament again brought out the best in this group," Allentown coach Brian Nice said. "We lost early in our county tournament and we had some games where the intensity just wasn't there. When we're flat, we're a very beatable team. When we come out and play like we did the last four games, we can beat teams."

Allentown celebrates its win over Wall and second straight Central Group III championship. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Allentown celebrates its win over Wall and second straight Central Group III championship. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Wall's junior-heavy roster, meanwhile, was seeking its first sectional championship in 10 years and what the Crimson Knights hoped would be the first of at least two in a row given that eight of the 10 players in the starting lineup are set to return in 2019.

"We pride ourselves on winning that extra championship," said Wall coach Todd Schmitt, whose oversaw one of two Shore teams to ever win all five championships - division, county, conference, sectional and overall group - in a single season back in 2004. "It's so hard to get here. There is no guarantee we'll get back here next year, so when you get here, you've got to make the most of it."

One of those eight is junior Ryan Napolitano, who started on the mound for Wall and entered the game 7-0 with a 2.33 ERA. The senior was the only of Wall's top three pitchers available to pitch after junior ace Trey Dombroski threw 105 pitches on Tuesday and junior Grant Shulman threw 111 on Wednesday.

Napolitano walked the first batter on a 3-2 pitch and never quite recovered, surrendering four runs on four hits in the first inning before giving up a double and a walk to start the second. He handed the ball to the bullpen having retired only three batters, one of which was recorded at home plate on an outfield assist by junior Doug Wetzel to end the first inning.

Napolitano is not the only pitcher to fall victim to Allentown's offense, which has produced at least six runs in each of the four NJSIAA Tournament games and an average of 8.5. All that despite returning just three starters in the field and none on the mound from last year's 26-2 Group III championship club.

"Nap has been great all along for us," Schmitt said. "He just didn't have his stuff early today, which happens to every pitcher. The only other game it happened was (a loss) to Colts Neck and we battled back to take the lead in that one. We battled today too, we just couldn't quite get back."

Wall cut Allentown's deficit in half with two runs in the bottom of the second - one of which scored on an error on a hard ground ball hit by junior catcher David Howarth and the other on a wild pitch.

Allentown, however, came back with a run in the third on a two-out wild pitch and another in the top of the fifth on an RBI single by freshman Dan Merkel.

The Crimson Knights did not go down easily, mounting another rally in the bottom of the fifth. Wall loaded the bases for Shulman, who roped a two-run single into right-center to pull Wall within 6-4. Wall added one more in the inning when sophomore center fielder Teddy Sharkey reached on a two-out error to score shortstop Dylan Richey.

Wall's battle back to within a run was a welcome sight for Schmitt, whose team had not scored more than three runs in any of the three tournament wins - which included two 1-0 wins.

Wall junior Grant Shulman fires up the dugout after his two-run single in the fifth. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Wall junior Grant Shulman fires up the dugout after his two-run single in the fifth. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"Even though we haven't been scoring many runs, we've been hitting the ball," Schmitt said. "We're not striking out. We just put some bad swings on good pitches today. They have that resilience about them. They battle all 21 outs and that's been the case with our losses."

To protect the one-run lead over the final two innings, Allentown entrusted its youngest starter. Merkel took the ball and promptly struck out the side in order in the bottom of the sixth.

In the seventh, Shulman ripped a one-out single to center field to get something started for Wall. Merkel struck out senior Andy Lenneper and with Sharkey at the plate, Shulman took second on a wild pitch as the potential tying run. Sharkey jumped on a 1-2 offering from Merkel, but his line drive hung up for left fielder Mike Zupko, who secured the championship-clinching out.

Chris Reeder got the scoring started for Allentown in the first with a two-run single to right field and Justin Marcario later followed with an RBI double. Austin Ferrier capped the first-inning scoring with an RBI single, with Wetzel preventing it from being a two-run single with his throw to the plate.

Junior left-hander Tanner Powers pitched four innings of relief and Sharkey retired all six batters he faced during his two innings of relief in the sixth and seventh.

Sharkey will be the youngest of the eight returning starters in 2019 and Dombroski makes nine major contributors to this year's 22-win, Class B North championship team who are in line to lead a dangerous Wall team in 2019.

"It's disappointing on the whole, but we've got a shot to come back next year," Schmitt said. "They know what it tastes like to get this far and not be able to get it done. That bitter taste will be a big motivator for them."


Box Score

Allentown 6, Wall 5

Allentown (21-6)40101006122
Wall (22-6)0200300592


Jack Nitti (W, 7-2)4.18520275
Ben Mashkevich0.20001010
Dan Merkel (S)21000432
Ryan Napolitano (L, 7-1)15442037
Tanner Powers47222275
Teddy Sharkey20000222

Top Hitters

Brandon Gaul3-4, 2B, R
Justin Marcario2-4, 2B, RBI
Austin Ferrier2-3, 2B, R, RBI
Dan Merkel2-4, 2B, RBI, SB
Chris Reeder1-4, R, 2 RBI
Teddy Sharkey2-4, R
Grant Shulman2-4, 2 RBI
John Volpe2-4, R
Tanner Powers1-2, R
Doug Wetzel1-3, 2B, R



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