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LACEY TWP. - While Donovan Catholic baseball coach Corey Hamman knew his team was vastly improved since his first year on the job in 2019, he wasn't sure how it would respond to a situation like the one it faced Thursday.

Playing well into extra innings at Lacey with first place in the Shore Conference Class B South division on the line, the Griffins - the No. 9 team in the latest Shore Sports Network Top 10 - showed they are both ready to win tough games against All-Shore-caliber pitchers with a championship on the line.

Donovan Catholic and Lacey battled into the 12th inning Thursday and sophomore second baseman Gavin Degnan broke the tie with an RBI single to right field in the top of the inning - the difference in a 3-2 Griffins win on the road against the Lions in 12 innings.

Lacey coach Adam Taha handed the ball to 3-0 ace Jacob Bowles for Thursday's big divisional tilt, with Lacey entering the day tied for first place with Manchester and Donovan Catholic one game back in the standings. Donovan Catholic jumped on Bowles for a first-inning run on doubles by senior centerfielder Sam Gates and freshman catcher Hunter Johnson before the senior right-hander settled in and quieted the Griffins bats over the next four innings.

"I play summer ball with (Bowles) so I know him and I know what he's got," Gates said. "I just wanted to go with the pitch, keep it simple, get on base, and do whatever I needed to do to get us going against him."

Bowles was a promising freshman in Hamman's final year as the head coach of Lacey - a six-year stint that included a 21-win season and Class B South divisional championship in 2017. On Friday, Bowles allowed two earned runs on five hits, four walks and seven strikeouts.

"He's a great pitcher and it's a great program," Hamman said. "Jacob Bowles is Bowles: he throws three pitches for strikes, he keeps you off-balance, but we hung with him. He is one of the better pitchers in the Shore."

The one run against Bowles held up into the fifth inning thanks to the continued success of Griffins junior left-hander Shaun O'Keefe, who also entered Thursday 3-0 and took a scoreless outing into the bottom of the fifth frame.

In the bottom of the fifth, however, O'Keefe ran into some resistance, with No. 9 hitter Noah Quinn leading off the inning with a single and Bowles walking on four pitches. That prompted Hamman to turn to sophomore John Grano to get out of the two-on-none-out jam, with O'Keefe departed after throwing 83 pitches.

Donovan Catholic junior Shaun O'Keefe. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Donovan Catholic junior Shaun O'Keefe. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Johnson allowed the runners to move up a base with a passed ball and nearly let in a run by missing another Grano pitch, but he recovered the ball and flipped it to Grano at the plate to tag Quinn out before he could score Lacey's first run.

After second baseman Zack Mohr walked, Donovan Catholic opted to walk first baseman Matt Kaliske (3-for-5 with a double in the game) intentionally to load the bases with one out. Another passed ball, however, opened the door for Lacey and this time Bowles made it to the plate with the tying run.

After another walk to load the bases, Lacey senior third baseman Josh Fracasso lifted a sacrifice fly to center for the go-ahead run before Grano ended the threat on the next batter.

Donovan Catholic quickly answered in the top of the sixth when Degnan led off with a line-drive single through the middle, stole second base and scored on an RBI single through the right side by junior rightfielder Anthony Mursko with one out.

The two teams then went scoreless for the next five full innings, with Bowles finishing the seventh after throwing his 113th pitch of the game and sophomore right-hander Jason Basilicata beginning a five-inning stint for Donovan Catholic by taking the ball to start the bottom of the sixth.

Senior Matt Colucci wound up earning the win for pitching the final two innings for Donovan Catholic, but Basilicata was the team's pitching standout on Thursday. He allowed three hits and one walk over his five scoreless innings while striking out five on 75 pitches - his longest outing in his first varsity season.

"He has been an inning-at-a-time guy for us but looking at our schedule coming up - we have seven games in the next nine days - we needed to stretch somebody out," Hamman said. "He got into a really tight situation and got out of it. Grano the same thing. Nerves are going to play a factor for these sophomores. They didn't get to play their freshman year so we have had to throw them into the fire this year and they are learning and getting better every time out."

It was not all smooth sailing, however, for Basilicata. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Lacey senior catcher Brandon DeAngelo beat out an infield single with one out and courtesy runner Jordy LaValle advanced all the way to third on an errant pickoff throw by Basilicata to put the winning run 90 feet from home.

Donovan Catholic then caught a break when Carson Gudzak ripped a line drive to centerfield that hung up long enough for Gates to make the catch. It appeared to be deep enough for the the runner to tag and make a bid to score, but LaValle broke for the plate on contact and did not get back in time to tag up and challenge the strong arm of Gates.

In the next inning, Gates put that strong arm on display when with one out, he ranged into the right-center gap to catch a line drive by Zack Mohr and caught Bowles ranging too far off first base. Gates fired a strike to Rocco Scarpitti at first base well before Bowles could get back to complete the inning-ending double play, sending the game to the 10th inning.

"I'm just looking to do anything I can to get us an out and get us back in the dugout," Gates said. "I saw him a little too far off the base and I just tried to make a good throw."

Gates had his fingerprints all over Thursday's game, reaching base five times in six plate appearances (3-for-4) with a double, two walks, two stolen bases and a run scored.

"He is a leader on defense, he plays centerfield for a reason and he is an all-around great baseball player," Hamman said of Gates. "He has really come out of himself this year, bunting for base hits, driving the ball to the gap. We don't have captains, but he is definitely our leader."

Basilicata ended his outing by stranding a pair of runners on the corners with a strikeout in the bottom of the 10th.

Lacey turned to senior right-hander Nick Zarycki - the No. 2 pitcher in the rotation behind Bowles - for the five extra innings and he set down the Griffins in order in each of the first three innings he threw. Degnan ended the streak of nine straight retired by singling to open the 11th and again stole second base, but was erased trying to advance to third base on a ground ball to the left side of the infield. Donovan Catholic put an additional baserunner on due to an error but senior Joe Payne lined out to third base to end the threat.

After senior Colucci fired a scoreless 11th for the Griffins, his team finally mounted a scoring rally. Scarpitti lined a single to right to lead off the inning and Hmielewski sacrificed him to second base. Gates then worked walk on six pitches and third baseman Andrew Bonick lined a singled to center to load the bases with one out.

Degnan then flipped a low, shallow pop up over the head of Kaliske at first base and with the infield drawn in, it was far enough to dunk in and score Scarpitti with the go-ahead run. Zarycki limited the damage by inducing a shallow fly out and striking out the last batter he faced.

Lacey threatened in the final inning but committed its third base-running gaffe of extra innings when Donovan shortstop Tyler Hmielewski fielded a ground ball with none out and threw to third to get Donnie Kirk attempting to advance to third base. That gave the Griffins the first out of the inning and wiped out a runner in scoring position, but it turned out not to matter because although Lacey loaded up the bases on two more walks, Kirk could not have scored without a hit - assuming Hmielewski completed the throw to first base instead of taking the out at third on that play.

As it turned out, Colucci would not give up that big hit, getting Mike Todaro to fly out to Gates to end the game with the bases loaded.

With both teams chasing a division title in a competitive Class B South division, neither will have much available to them for the first round of the Shore Conference Tournament on Saturday. Neither of Lacey's top two pitchers will be eligible to pitch, while Hamman - whose team is seeded No. 10 in the Shore Conference Tournament and will host Manchester in Saturday's first round - indicated he is prioritizing winning the Class B South title. That pursuit continues Monday, when Donovan Catholic hosts Lacey in the second game of the regular-season series.

"We're still in the hunt in the division and that's our focus right now," Hamman said. "We have the Shore Conference Tournament Saturday but that's secondary right now because we're really trying for the division. We're going to compete every game but we really put a lot of focus into winning today, playing good baseball over the weekend and then coming out ready to play (Lacey) again on Monday."

"We're just maturing as a team, as players," Gates said. "It's exciting. We're trying to get this division."

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