Baseball – Dowlen, Defense Deliver as Middletown North Reaches First Group Final in 39 Years
FRANKLINVILLE -- The Middletown North baseball team entered play Monday with a chance to win an NJSIAA Group III championship by giving the ball to its dominant ace two more times and with a major assist to a red-hot offense.
By the end of play Monday, its fifth-year-senior ace was giving his defense a major assist in helping him pitch the Lions within one win of their first ever state title.
Colin Dowlen pitched a complete game and drove in three runs to turn in another huge all-around game, while his defense backed him up with an errorless performance on 15 chances as Middletown North upended surging Delsea, 6-1, to reach an NJSIAA Group final for the first time since 1983.
Monday's road win over the Crusaders extended Middletown North's winning streak to 11 games while also snapping a 15-game winning streak by Delsea, the South Jersey Group III champion.
"We totally turned it around," Dowlen said. "Everyone in the lineup is contributing. It's been a team effort."
Dowlen scattered seven hits, struck out five and did not walk a batter in his 111-pitch outing, with junior shortstop Ryan Frontera leading a sparking defensive effort that backed him up. Frontera handled all seven chances hit his way, including three in the first inning. The Seton Hall commit made a leaping snare of a line drive on the first batter of the game and he started the a double-play on the final play of the game.
"Special players understand the environment and do special things," Middletown North coach Ryan McCabe said. "He is as good as anyone I have ever coached or even played with at shortstop. He did have a lapse or two against Colts Neck (in the sectional final), but there is nobody in the Shore I'd rather see the ball hit to."
"He was making up for all the errors he made," Dowlen joked. "Defense has been kind of a struggle even while we have been winning, but today it was great. I didn't have a lot of strikeouts, so the boys picked me up."
Delsea had a steep hill to climb trailing, 6-1, heading into the bottom of the seventh, but also had a glimmer of hope with Dowlen approaching the single-game pitch limit of 110. Landon Burns brought some life to the Delsea dugout with a seven-pitch at-bat that ended with a single through the left side, giving the Crusaders a runner on first with one out and Dowlen at 108 pitches.
The only way Dowlen would have a chance to finish the game was a double-play and the Lions ace got just what he needed. On his 111th pitch, Dowlen induced a groundball to Frontera, who fielded it cleanly and flipped it to second baseman Colby McMahon for the second out of the inning.
McMahon's turn and throw to first base was not in time to get shortstop Max Van Auken, but the umpires called baserunner interference at second base and awarded Middletown North the final out of the game.
"More than anything, we just wanted Colin to throw his stuff when he wanted to," McCabe said. "He is going to dictate the game to everybody else and as the game gets further along and we have to start worrying about his pitch count, that's when we tell him to attack and not get cute."
Dowlen opened the scoring with an RBI single through the middle in the top of the third inning and contributed a two-run single in Middletown North's five-run fourth inning. Sophomore Dylan Briggs fought off an RBI single into shallowed left field to score senior Andre Lombardi and make it 2-0 and an error stretched the Lions lead to 3-0.
With one out, Dowlen hit a hard ground ball to shortstop, but a wicked hop ate up Van Auken, carried into the outfield and plated two runs. Freshman Zach Hampton capped the five-run rally with an RBI single to left.
First baseman Landon Burns tagged a leadoff double in the fifth and scored on a groundout to get Delsea on the board -- the first run Dowlen allowed in 38 2/3 innings.
Dowlen rocked for 11 runs -- five earned -- in just 1 1/3 innings in a loss at Middletown South on April 26 and proceeded to go 6-0 with 34 straight innings without giving up an earned run. That stretch included a perfect game against Freehold Boro and two wins in the Central Jersey Group III Playoffs.
"That was probably the worst game I ever pitched," Dowlen said of his loss to his rival, whom he no-hit in 2021. "I just tried to put it behind me, not dwell on the past. There wasn't much I had to fix. Just have move on and be better."
Although he graduated from Middletown North in 2021, Dowlen is back for one more year by taking advantage of the "Bridge Year" law that allows spring-sport athletes graduating in either 2021 or 2022 to participate for their high school while taking college courses at a local community college.
Dowlen, who committed to Seton Hall prior to this season, made the decision to return in 2022 while he was still playing in 2022.
"I think it was a great decision to stay," Dowlen said. "It's worked out and hopefully we can keep the bats going and play solid defense one more time."
Middletown North moves on to the Group III final to play Cranford Saturday at Veterans Park in Hamilton, with a scheduled first pitch of 10 a.m. Although Dowlen said he is going to get himself ready to start the championship game, McCabe said he is not giving the ball to his ace until he knows he is physically ready.
Dowlen was shut down for two weeks last year with a minor arm issue, which kept him on a 65-pitch limit for his lone NJSIAA Tournament start in 2021. He has been healthy throughout this season, but his regular rest period between starts has been five days.
Dowlen pitched once with four days of rest following a start, but it was one inning of relief to close out a win. He then started a game the next day.
"I usually like five or six days (between starts)," Dowlen said. "Can't do anything about that. I'll just do my normal routine: run, all those things. But I can't wait."
Even if McCabe opts for fellow senior Mike Weinbel to start the game, based on his used this season, Dowlen will almost certainly be available in some capacity.
"I know he is going to want it, but we've got to be smart and do what's best for him and everybody else long-term," McCabe said. "Can't get caught up in the moment. He is going to prepare himself like he is going to go, but we'll sit down and see."
Middletown North 6, Delsea 1
|Midd North (20-10)||0||0||1||5||0||0||0||6||6||0|
|Colin Dowlen (W, 9-2)||7||7||1||1||0||5||111|
|George Starr (L)||2||4||6||4||5||4||68|
|Middletown North||Game Stats|
|Colin Dowlen||2-3, HBP, 3 RBI|
|Zach Hampton||2-4, RBI|
|Dylan Briggs||1-3, R, RBI|
|Landon Burns||2-3, 2B, R|
|Jake McGinley||1-3, 2B|