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HAMILTON TWP. -- When Colin Dowlen decided at the end of his senior season at Middletown that he was going to take advantage of the new "Bridge Year" law and play one more season the Middletown North baseball team, he never in his wildest dreams imagined it would end the way it did.

Already granted an additional year to lead his team to its first ever state championship, Dowlen also, according to multiple accounts, was granted additional pitches in Saturday's Group III championship game against Cranford to help his team do it.

Dowlen was the subject of a major pitch-counting controversy in the top of the seventh inning, and when the dust settled, he was the first one to greet senior teammate Mike Weinbel at home plate when Weinbel scored the winning run in the bottom of the eighth inning of Middletown North's historic 5-4 win over Cranford Saturday at Bob DeMeo Field.

Photo by Matt Manley
Photo by Matt Manley
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"These guys will tell you, to a man that before today, we had unfinished business," Middletown North coach Ryan McCabe said. "These guys weren't going to be happy without this one. This is what we set out to do and it's something we'll never forget."

Saturday's extra-inning triumph completes Middletown North's run to its first ever NJSIAA championship and a 2022 season that ended with the Lions winning their last 12 games. What seemed to be an improbable task back on May 12, when Middletown North fell to 9-10 and missed out on qualifying for the Shore Conference Tournament, concluded with a dramatic victory that was also mired in controversy.

"From day one, this was our goal: to win a state championship," senior Andrew Lombardi said. "We had our ups, we had our downs, but we had no doubt in our minds and we just stayed together as a team. We worked hard in practice, we played hard in the games and we had a good outcome."

Under normal circumstances, the responsibility of counting pitches would have fallen solely on the two dugouts, but then again, under normal circumstances, Dowlen likely would not have pitched on Saturday at all. Starting for the first time in his high-school career on four-days rest, Dowlen pitched into the seventh inning and upon recording the second out on a fly ball with runners on first and second, the scoreboard and several accounts by reporters covering the game -- including the Shore Sports Network book -- had Dowlen at 112 pitches.

"Coming off 111 pitches on four-days rest, we haven't asked him to do that," McCabe said. "He hasn't done it in four years here, but I was going to have to pry it out of his cold, dead hands to get the ball from him today. I didn't want to put too much pressure on him earlier in the week by naming him the starter, but he wanted it."

NJSIAA rules limit pitchers to 110 pitches in a single game, but allow for a pitcher to complete an at-bat if he throws his 110th pitch in the middle of said at-bat. After the second out of the seventh, however, Dowlen threw a pitch to the next batter and Cranford coach Dennis McCaffery immediately called for time and pointed out to the umpiring crew that, by his estimation and according to what was on the scoreboard, Dowlen had just exceeded his pitch limit. NJSIAA rules stipulate that if a team uses a pitcher illegally, it forfeits the game.

"We had him with 119 (for the game)," McCaffery said. "We haven't been wrong since they started the new pitch count rule. I don't remember what he was at, but we took a strike (with two out in the seventh) because we were very confident he could not pitch to that last batter (in the inning)."

Upon appealing, however, the umpiring crew consulted the NJSIAA's official pitch-counter for the game, who verbalized that Dowlen was at 96 pitches after the second out. Upon reviewing his count, he changed that number to 104, but was still eight short of what the scoreboard, Cranford and several unofficial books had for Dowlen's pitch count.

McCabe was checking with the pitch-counter throughout the game and was under the impression that Dowlen -- who is headed to pitch at Seton Hall next season -- had yet to meet the single-game limit. With no more games to play this season and Dowlen giving his coach the thumbs up to use him for 110 pitches, McCabe left the pitch-counting to the pitch-counter.

"He is the official counter, so what I have means nothing," McCabe said. "So I was just asking him at the end of every inning, he told me a number, I wrote it down. I'm not smart enough to do keep all that in mind so it was nice to have somebody to do it for us today, so I left that up to him."

McCabe also said he brought up the discrepancy on the scoreboard earlier in the game.

"Back in the fourth inning, I said (to the counter), 'Look, the count is way off (on the scoreboard), do you want to address it now so it's not an issue later?' He said 'No, I don't have anything to do with that.' So we just tried to focus on what we could do and what we could control."

The archived livestream of the Group III final is posted on NJ.com for verification and according to NJ Advance Media, Cranford is officially protesting the game with the NJSIAA.

"I just knew it would all work out," said Dowlen, who said he had no idea what his pitch count was. "If I could go back out there, I would go back out there and that's what happened. We got the one out (in the eighth) and Matt (Adamson) came in and closed it out.

"I was going to do whatever it took to win today. We had one play at first (in the 6th) with a guy we thought was out, but they scored two runs off of it. We came back to tie it with Lombardi, who was super clutch today."

After all that, the score was tied, 4-4, and given a chance to finish the seventh inning, Dowlen struck out the last batter of the seventh to send the game to extra innings with his official count at 108 (and his unofficial count at 116).

To make matters worse for Cranford, there was also a discrepancy with its own starter, senior right-hander Will Gallagher. After Gallagher held Middletown North scoreless in the bottom of the seventh, the scoreboard and a number of unofficial books listed him at 98 pitches, but the official pitch-counter had his total at 109. As was the case with Dowlen, the pitch-counter found an error and amended the number to 100, allowing him to come back out to face multiple batters in the eighth inning.

Dowlen faced one batter in the top of the eighth and got him on a foul out on the first base side. Senior left-hander Matt Adamson then came on and after hitting the first batter he faced, retired the next two via flyouts to send the game to the bottom of the eighth.

Middletown North immediately mounted a threat in the bottom of the eighth. Dowlen hit a comebacker that Gallagher failed to control and the ball kicked away to give Dowlen enough time to reach first safely. Weinbel then ripped a single off the glove of diving third baseman Ryan Jaros and into shallow left field.

McCaffery then lifted Gallagher with his official pitch count at 105 in favor of junior right-hander Sean Woodruff. Middletown North freshman Zach Hampton hit a deep fly ball to center that Jake Martin flagged down for the first out of the inning, but also advanced Dowlen to third base via a tag-up.

Cranford then opted to walk the designated hitter, Lombardi, who had the two biggest swings of the game for Middletown North. The senior and starter since his freshman season roped a tiebreaking home run in the bottom of the fourth inning and a game-tying RBI single in the bottom of the sixth, so McCaffery had seen enough and chose to load the bases for sophomore Jason Quardt.

With a 2-2 count, Quardt hit the ball back to Woodruff, who immediately threw the ball home for the force-out in hopes of starting an inning-ending 1-2-3 double-play. Catcher Lucca Limeira then made a low throw to first and it skipped past first baseman Tony Silva.

Weinbel, who started the play on second base, chugged around third and scored the winning run standing up, with Dowlen the first person there to greet him.

"We have been down a lot," McCabe said. "This team has been hit in the face a lot this year and they're going to keep coming."

After all the pitch-count drama, it was Adamson who earned the win for Middletown North anyway. While McCaffery was agitated at the handling of the pitch counts, he also acknowledged that, at worst, there was no way of knowing if it had an impact on the outcome. At best, Middletown North outplayed Cranford to win its first ever state title and deny the Cougars their first since 2013.

"I don't know," McCaffery said when asked how the pitch-count discrepancy might have impacted the outcome of the game. "They scored one more run than we did. We didn't make the play at the end of the game. We had a ball hit to the pitcher with the bases loaded and we didn't execute it. You make a mistake in the state final, it costs you. It cost us an opportunity to win a state championship."

Saturday's clash pitted one of the state's hottest lineups vs. one of its hottest pitchers. Cranford entered averaging 10.6 runs per game over its last 22 games, while Dowlen had allowed just one earned run over his last 41 innings.

The Cougars got right to work on Dowlen, with rightfielder Shane Van Dam launching a solo home run to left-centerfield in the top of the first, staking Cranford to a 1-0 lead. The damage might have been greater if not for the first of several sparkling defensive plays by Hampton at first base. After Carter doubled to lead off the game, Weinbel fielded a ground ball and fired to first for the first out of the inning and when Carter broke for third on Weinbel's throw, Hampton fired it right back to Weinbel, who applied the tag for the second out.

After Middletown North's defense minimized the damage in the top of the first, the Lions immediately tied the game. Adamson singled to left and junior shortstop Ryan Frontera was hit by a pitch. Dowlen then slapped a single inside the first-base bag to score Adamson and advance Frontera to third with nobody out. Gallagher then threw a pitch behind Weinbel and to the backstop, allowing Frontera to score on the wild pitch.

Gallagher also minimized the damage by cutting off courtesy runner Aldo Casale at third base on a fielder's choice and stranding Hampton at first base, keeping the score 2-1.

Cranford pulled even in the top of the third with some small ball, courtesy of Carter and Jaros. Carter drew a six-pitch walk, stole second and went to third on an overthrow down to second base. Jaros -- a junior and Georgia Tech commit -- then scalded a line drive to left that was deep enough to chase home Carter with a game-tying sacrifice fly.

Lombardi then struck with his first big blow in the bottom of the fourth. The senior squared up an offering from Gallagher and launched it over the fence in straightaway centerfield to put Middletown North back on top, 3-2.

"I had never hit a centerfield home run, so it was definitely a surprise for me," said Lombardi, who has not been able to play his primary position of catcher due to a torn ligament in his throwing elbow. "They have always been no-doubters to left. I had a good swing to center my first at-bat so I knew I had stuff going that way so I stayed with that approach. I put a barrel on it and it went."

"Andrew's got power for days," McCabe said. "He got one up, the wind was blowing, he made good contact, so you had a pretty good feeling that was going to get out off here. He's hitting six for us, which should tell you about the depth of this lineup one-through-nine. There aren't a lot of guys with his ability hitting sixth in a lineup."

Cranford had one last rally in its reserves and it came in the sixth. Dowlen appeared to kill a potential rally by starting a 1-6-3 double-play for the first two outs of the inning, but the Cougars did not let him off the hook. Silva worked a one-out walk and Conley beat out a groundball to third base to keep the inning alive for Gallagher. The senior right-hander then momentarily got himself off the hook with a game-tying RBI single to left-center, while also advancing Conley to third base.

A wild pitch then allowed Conley to score the go-ahead run.

In the bottom of the sixth, Gallagher retired the first two batters before Middletown North rallied. Weinbel was hit by a pitch and Hampton reached on a throwing error by Jaros that extended the inning for Lombardi. On a 1-1 count, Lombardi smoked a shot down the third-base line and into left field to score Weinbel from second with an RBI single.

"Our mentality is to get it to the next guy," Lombardi said. "I've been working a lot in practice on just hitting line drives. I don't want to get under the ball too much, like I did in my first at-bat. It's more of a line-drive approach just trying to get a job done and get it to the next guy."

"He hasn't caught a game all season and he is pulling through with the bat," Dowlen said of Lombardi. "Getting it started with the homer, then again with the liner down the line: you couldn't ask for anything more from him."

Dowlen returned to the mound for the seventh and before running into the pitch-count drama, he gave up a leadoff single and a stolen base to Carter before getting Jaros with the curveball for a huge strikeout. Middletown North then intentionally walked Van Dam, who also doubled off the fence to go along with his homer, and Dowlen induced a flyout for the second out to set up the pitch-count controversy.

Dowlen closes his last high school season with a hard-fought outing against a deep lineup that tagged him for 10 hits and four walks while only striking out four times, but had to settle for four runs and only came up with one hit with a runner in scoring position.

"Every time Colin goes out on the mound, he's a dog," Lombardi said. "Every time he goes out there, he gives us his best. We just went out there with trust, made plays behind him and he kept us in it."

"We had fantastic at-bats today," McCaffery said. "Our kids hit the ball right on the money all game. Our kids had fantastic at-bats and our approach was tremendous. Sometimes you hit balls right and them and sometimes you hit them in the gap. That's baseball and they won."

Carter and Van Dam -- the Nos. 1 and 3 hitters in the lineup -- were a thorn in Dowlen's side throughout the game, but the Middletown North ace held Jaros without a hit in the No. 2 spot and struck him out in his final at-bat. Jaros entered the game hitting .494.

"The two and three batters are probably the two toughest kids I have faced all year," Dowlen said. "I was just letting them put the ball in play and wasn't try to do too much; just let my defense work. I was just spotting that fastball high and trying to work the curveball low, trying to get them to chase."

"(Jaros) is as good a hitter as you're going to see," McCabe said. "The fact that we were able to not give up any big innings and to keep them to one at a time, that was the difference for us."

After an All-Shore season a year ago ended with Dowlen slowed by an arm injury, he returned for the 2022 season as a bridge-year senior: he took classes at Brookdale Community College while remaining a member of Middletown North's baseball team, allowing him to save a year of eligibility in college in the wake of the canceled spring season of 2020 due to COVID-19.

Dowlen's decision was to better set himself up for his college career and it wound up giving him an opportunity to make history with his teammates.

"I was talking with a couple schools and my coach mentioned a bridge year," Dowlen said. "I talked about it with my dad and we decided it was the best decision. I couldn't be any happier with how it turned out."

Prior to Saturday, Middletown North's only appearance in the a group final was 1983, when the Lions lost to Elizabeth in the Group IV championship game. This year's team started 5-8 through April 30, but turned its season around in May. Middletown North went 16-2 over its final 18 games and won 12 in a row to close the season, closing it out with a win over a Cranford team that had won 20 of its last 22 prior to Saturday.

"A state championship was never on my mind," Dowlen said about his decision to return. "I think I was maybe hoping for it, but I'm happy we could do it. This is probably the most fun I have had playing baseball. The whole team just loves each other. It's great to be a part of history."

Box Score

Middletown North 5, Cranford 4 (8 Innings)

12345678RHE
Cranford (25-5)101002004113
Midd North (21-10)20010101560

Pitching

CranfordIPHRERBBSOPC
Will Gallagher (L, 9-2)765323107
Sean Woodruff0.2000109
Middletown NorthIPHRERBBSOPC
Colin Dowlen7.164444112
Matt Adamson (W, 3-2)0.2000007

Top Hitters

CranfordGame Stats
Shane Van Dam2-3, 2B, HR, R, RBI
Jake Carter3-3, 2B, R, 2 SB
Will Gallagher1-4, RBI
Shea Grady2-4
Tony Silva1-3, BB
Jack Conley1-3, HBP, R
Middletown NorthGame Stats
Andrew Lombardi2-3, HR, BB, R, 2 RBI
Colin Dowlen1-4, RBI
Matt Adamson1-4, R
Dylan Briggs1-2, BB
Mike Weinbel1-3, HBP, 2 R