FLEMINGTON - Friday's NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship game ended with Freehold Boro junior Mark Costanzo hitting the ball about as hard as he could with the bases loaded and the tying run on third base.

Before the ball found its way to the outfield and the Colonials took the lead, however, Hunterdon Central third baseman Sal Lombardi stuck his arm in the air and snatched the ball - and a championship - out of the air.

Constanzo ripped line drive that Lombardo caught for the game's final out and the Red Raiders beat Freehold Boro, 2-1, to win their second straight Central Jersey Group IV championship.

"We just couldn't score," Freehold Boro coach Jon Block said. "Our guys fought, they battled and with the game on the line, you can't hit a ball harder (than Costanzo hit it). It just found a glove. That's the way the game goes sometimes. It just wasn't our day."

Seniors Pat White (32), Tom Holdorf (18) and Chris Cassandra (16) walk through their last high school handshake line after nearly coming back to beat Hunterdon Central. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Seniors Pat White (32), Tom Holdorf (18) and Chris Cassandra (16) walk through their last high school handshake line after nearly coming back to beat Hunterdon Central. (Photo by Matt Manley)

With his team trailing 2-0, third baseman Matt Granato led off the top of the seventh with his second double of the game and moved to third on a wild pitch. Mike Belka and pinch-hitter Roberto Reyes drew consecutive walks to bring up leadoff hitter and shortstop Chris Cassandra with one out.

Hunterdon Central right-hander Alex Degen retired Cassandra on a pop-up in four territory, then hit Tom Holdorf on a 1-2 pitch to force in Freehold's first run. Costanzo then smashed a shot that appeared ticketed for the left-field corner, but Lombardo got his glove up to make the back-handed snare.

"The bottom of our lineup was where most of our production was today, so I felt pretty confident going into the last at-bat," Block said. "This group has battled all year, so I knew they would put up a fight."

Granato led Freehold at the plate by reaching base in all three of his trips to the batter's box, which included two doubles and a walk. Cassandra also collected two hits in a 2-for-4 game.

Degen pitched the final two innings to earn the save after junior left-hander Joey DeChiaro tossed five scoreless frames and departed after throwing 69 pitches.

The Red Devils scored both runs off Freehold Boro starter Dan Chiusano in the bottom of the third on a two-out RBI single by right fielder Collin Mason. The first run scored on the hit and second second came around when the throw to the plate in from left field skipped out of play.

"We have guys with big-game experience who have been in these situations," Hunterdon Central coach Kevin Cuozzi said. "In those pressure situations, sometimes you just have to take a step back as a coach and just let the players find their way. There's not much do other than trust them to do what they've practiced all year. Other times, it just comes down to a bounce or two and we took advantage of a couple today."

Chiusano needed 29 pitches to get out of the third inning and it turned out to be his and the Colonials' undoing. All the action in the third came with two out, starting single by shortstop and No. 9 hitter Ryan Koep on a 1-2 pitch up in the zone. Mark Saponaro then walked on a 3-2 pitch and Mason ripped the first pitch he saw just over the reach of Granato at third.

The senior left-hander allowed just those two runs - one earned - on only four hits, three walks, a hit batter and six strikeouts. He pitched around around a leadoff double by Pete Cosentino in the fourth and stranded two more in the fifth.

"My focus today was on sticking to the things that have worked for me," Chiusano said. "I get in trouble when I try to do more than I need to in order to execute the gameplan and I think that happened to me a little bit in that (third) inning. I thought I bounced back okay after that and just tried to battle. I'm sure I'll go back and play the game over in my head at some point."

Over the last two seasons, Chiusano has been on the wrong end of plenty of low-scoring decisions. Last year, he posted a 5-5 record despite pitching to a 0.92 ERA and even throwing a seven-inning perfect game. This year, two of his three losses have come in games in which he allowed one earned run - Friday's game and an opening-day loss to Christian Brothers Academy.

"This year, when he's gotten beat, it's just one inning where there's a little bit of a letdown," Block said of Chiusano. "He did have that inning today, but I thought he did a really good job of making sure they didn't add on. They had a chance to break the game open and get some more runs and he got out of it and kept us in the game, which is all you can ask of a guy."

Chiusano and Holdorf anchored the pitching staff all season and, along with Cassandra at shortstop, will be the noteworthy losses to graduation for the Colonials.

"This group was a special, one of the best I've ever had," said Block, who led Freehold Boro to the Group III final in 2012 and to an outright Class A North championship this year. "They did some things that other groups haven't done and they've been a good character group. They have a lot to be proud of."


Hunterdon Central 2, Freehold Boro 1

Freehold (18-9)0000001151
Hunterdon Cent. (23-5)002000X241



Dan Chiusano (L, 6-3)64213692
Hunterdon CentralIPHRERBBSOPC
Joey DeChiaro (W)54001369
Aex Degen (S)21112142

Top Hitters

FreeholdGame Stats
Matt Granato2-2, 2 2B, BB, R
Mike Belka1-2, BB
Chris Cassandra2-4
Hunterdon CentralGame Stats
Collin Mason1-2, HBP, RBI
Mark Saponaro1-2, BB, R
Ryan Koep1-2, R
Pete Cosentino1-3, 2B


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