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TINTON FALLS -- To say Charlie Chropuvka got in on the ground floor of the Ranney School baseball team's transformation from afterthought to juggernaut would not be giving him enough credit.

When Chropuvka started his high-school baseball career in Tinton Falls five seasons ago, there was no floor. There hardly was a blueprint.

On Friday against the most decorated program in New Jersey, when Ranney's chance to win its first ever NJSIAA sectional championship hung in the balance, it was Chropuvka -- the guy who was a Panther before it was the thing to be -- who seized the moment.

With two on and none out in the bottom of the seventh and his team trailing by two runs, the left-hand-swinging Chropuvka smacked a long fly ball to left-centerfield that carried over the fence for a three-run home run, giving Ranney a thrilling, therapeutic, 8-7 win over Gloucester Catholic to clinch the program's first ever South Jersey Non-Public B championship in walk-off fashion.

"He saw everything," said Ranney coach Pat Geroni, who took over as head coach in 2019, of Chropuvka. "He saw where the program was, where it got to and everything in between. That's a senior just being a senior. As a coach, you hate to see seniors come up with the game on the line because you know you are getting their best and it comes from a place of experience. So I was glad to see Charlie come up in that spot and I couldn't be happier for him after watching how it turned out."

Chropuvka's heroics capped a game that was nearly a mirror image of last year's South Non-Public B semifinal, which Gloucester Catholic won, 9-8, in extra innings. Last year, it was Gloucester Catholic that hosted the game and jumped on top, 4-0, before giving up the lead, getting it back, then giving it up again on a three-run home run by A.J. Gracia in the top of the sixth.

Photo: Ranney Athletics
Photo: Ranney Athletics

The Rams then scored the tying run in the seventh after an errant throw to first by Panthers catcher Lou Spadafora after picking a swinging strike three out of the dirt for what could have been the championship-clinching out. Two batters later, a bases-loaded walk tied the game at 8-8 and the Rams walked off with a win on an RBI single by Jeremy Wolf.

On Friday, not only did Chropuvka have his chance at revenge, but Spadafora got his retribution. The junior catcher came to bat in a 3-3 game in the bottom of the sixth and cracked a go-ahead, two-run home run to left-centerfield to put the Panthers on the cusp of a championship with a 5-3 lead and three more outs to record.

"It was an absolutely crazy game," said Geroni, who called last year's loss to Gloucester Catholic the toughest of his coaching career. "It was really almost a mirror image of last year's game, right down to us being the home team this time, scoring first, giving up the lead twice and coming back to win it."

As it showed last year and so many times before in winning 29 sectional championships throughout its history, Gloucester Catholic can accomplish a lot with three outs left. The Rams tied the game on a two-run single by a familiar Ranney nemesis, Jeremy Wolf. Senior catcher Damon Suriani, who drew the game-tying walk in last year's seventh inning, then gave Gloucester Catholic the lead with a single through the middle and made it 7-5 when Wolf darted home after Ranney got the second out on a bunt attempt.

At that point, it was Ranney that was now down to its final three outs in the bottom of the seventh, but the Panthers got right to work. Gracia drew a leadoff walk and junior shortstop Brett Wehringer hit a high chopper to third base. Wolf fielded it cleanly and threw to second for his only potential chance for an out, but Gracia slide in safely to put runners on first and second for Chropuvka.

"A.J. is the best base-runner I have ever coached," Geroni said. "Most kids get caught watching the ball for a split second but he gets such great reads on everything. He broke to second right away and that's why he made it."

After taking a strike to make the count 2-1, Chropuvka honed in on the outer half of the plate and took his shot, smashing a long fly ball to left-center. When the ball cleared the fence and dropped to the other side, Ranney's roster poured out of the dugout and onto the field to begin the celebration and Chropuvka took his elated home-run trot.

Like Gloucester Catholic did on its home field last year, Ranney jumped out to a lead, scoring on a first-inning error and stretch the advantage to 3-0 on a two-run homer to right-center by Wehringer in the bottom of the fourth inning.

Gracia got the start on the mound and took a shutout into the sixth inning, but after a pair of walks, the junior left-hander served up a game-tying, three-run home run to junior Matt Leahy.

"This was the best A.J. has pitched all year," Geroni said. "He was absolutely dominant for those first five innings. I probably pushed him a little too far, especially after those two walks in the sixth inning. He ran a pitch over the plate against Leahy and he hit it out. He was starting to get kind of gassed and I probably should have made the move, but he was pitching really well and earned a chance to keep going."

In the bottom of the inning, junior third baseman Diego Tavarez worked a 10-pitch walk to start the rally and stole second base two pitches before Spadafora lunched his go-ahead homer. The Ranney catcher has now homered in back-to-back games after hitting one of his team's three home runs in the first inning of Monday's 16-8 win over Holy Spirit.

Junior Nick Coniglio came on to record all three outs in the sixth and got one out in the seventh before handing the ball over to junior left-hander Marcello Mastroianni with two runners on and the score still 5-3.

Ranney moves on to Wednesday's Non-Public B state championship game at Veterans Park in Hamilton, where the Panthers will take on North Jersey champion Immaculata at 7 p.m. in hopes of bringing home the overall program's first overall state championship to go with its first sectional title.


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