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HOWELL -- The players and coaches on the Howell baseball team would like everyone to know that reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.

If their words aren't convincing enough, the Rebels put together a surgical effort Wednesday to beat one of the best pitchers in the Shore Conference that should serve as pretty convincing evidence.

Howell -- the No. 2 seed in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV Tournament -- jumped on Manalapan senior ace Tyler Kane in the bottom of the first inning and Rebels senior ace Danny Furlong took care of the rest with a 74-pitch complete game in a 3-1 win over the 15th-seeded Braves.

"I think we've been a little underrated the last couple weeks," Howell coach Eric Johnson said. "We have been mixing guys in the lineup, we have been playing some seniors, using a lot of pitchers to get guys work and get guys rest. We had one really ugly loss to Central in the Shore Conference Tournament, but for the most part, we have been right where we want to be heading into this tournament."

Howell senior Dan Furlong. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Howell senior Dan Furlong. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Furlong was a model of efficiency, throwing 51 of the 74 pitches for strikes, striking out three, walking one and inducing three double-play ground balls, one of which he started himself. The senior right-hander needed only 40 pitches to complete the first five innings, with pitch totals of seven, nine, eight and five in four of the first five frames.

Kane countered for Manalapan with a two-hitter over six innings with five walks and 11 strikeout, but the Rebels made the most of their baserunners, starting in the first inning. Junior rightfielder Russell Halvorsen drew a leadoff walk and stole second base and after a pair of strikeouts by Kane, Furlong punched a single through the left side of the infield.

"We wanted to face a good pitcher," Furlong said. "We love hitting good pitching and Kane is one of the best in the Shore Conference. He throws hard and we have been preparing for him with harder (batting practice) and coming out in the first inning, we just wanted to time him up and look to be aggressive."

Halvorsen held at third on Furlong's hit and that patience paid off when senior leftfielder Nick Gomes laced the first pitch he saw from Kane into the rightfield corner for a two-run double and an early 2-0 Rebels lead.

Manalapan outhit Howell, 5-2, and had one fewer baserunner than the Rebels over the course of the game, but Howell's proficiency turning double-plays mitigated several of those baserunners. Both senior second baseman Nick Gallo and senior shortstop Thomas Strauch started an inning-ending double-play, Gallo in the first and Strauch in the third.

 

"Our defense was outstanding today," Johnson said. "Gallo was absolutely phenomenal at second base turning those double-plays. He has been doing that all year. We call him DP Gallo because he is so good at it."

In the fifth, Furlong gave up a leadoff single to Manalapan senior Dylan Reiner and on the next pitch, gloved a comebacker and started a 1-6-3 double play. Furlong then pounced off the mound, barehanded a slow roller and fired to first for the final out of a five-pitch fifth inning.

"It was beautiful," Furlong said of Howell's defense. "It's never been like that for me on our home field. It's not easy to play here as an infielder, so the defense we played, especially on the infield, that helped a lot."

Howell senior Nick Gallo turns one of Howell's three double-plays. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Howell senior Nick Gallo turns one of Howell's three double-plays. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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"You know the ball is going to get put in play (with Furlong on the mound)," Johnson said. "But it's not going to get put in play hard and they know they have to make the plays. (Furlong) is just so good on the mound. He is so creative and he really finds different ways to get different guys out."

Howell gave Furlong an insurance run to work with in the bottom of the sixth by taking advantage of three straight one-out walks in the inning by Kane. Sophomore first baseman Braden Walsh cashed in with a sacrifice fly to deep right field to score Furlong, who started the rally with a walk and crossed home plate for the second time in the game. The RBI was the team-leading 29th for Walsh.

"It was big getting Kane's pitch-count up," said Johnson, referencing the 110 pitches Kane threw in six innings. "Knowing that if they tied it or took the lead in the seventh that he wasn't pitching after that, we'll roll the dice with our lineup in the bottom of the seventh. He (Kane) is outstanding on the mound. Our guys respect him a lot."

Manalapan mounted its best threat against Furlong in the top of the seventh inning, with junior centerfielder Cristian Bernardini drawing a leadoff walk and Reiner lining a one-out single to center to set the Braves up with runners on the corners.

Howell nearly completed a fourth double-play after Bernardini's walk but Walsh could not hold onto the return throw in the dirt to finish it off. The Rebels got a chance to end the game with another double-play, but Strauch took the flip from Gallo, spun and threw the ball past Walsh and into the Manalapan dugout, giving Manalapan first baseman Liam Martin an RBI fielder's choice for Manalapan's first run, allowing Martin to move to second and bringing Lenny Mascucci to the plate as the tying run with two out.

Furlong finished off the game with his third strikeout, all three of punctuated the end of an inning.

Howell senior centerfielder Devon Smith. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
Howell senior centerfielder Devon Smith tracks down a deep fly ball vs. Manalapan. (Photo: Tom Smith | tspsportsimages.com)
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Howell entered Wednesday having won seven of its last nine games, but one of the losses was a 19-2 drubbing at the hands of Central Regional in the Shore Conference Tournament round of 16, which was the first game Howell played as the No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10. The Rebels bounced back with a win over Neptune and followed up that loss with another defeat at the hands of Bridgewater-Raritan.

The Rebels pulled out a 2-1 win over a 5-16 Brick squad in a game at ShoreTown Ballpark in Lakewood in which Johnson played every player on the roster, followed by a solid all-around performance in a 7-1 win over Hamilton West heading into the tournament.

"We looked at it like it was opening day," Furlong said. "It's a brand-new season now and this tournament is all we have left. We just want to keep playing as long as we can."

Over his last two outings, Furlong has returned to the form he displayed to open the season, which started with a 5-3 win over Kane and Manalapan on opening day. The senior right-hander injured his finger, which forced him to skip a start in the Monmouth County Tournament, and while he pitched a five-inning perfect game against 0-20 Long Branch, his next three outings were struggles compared to his 5-0 start in which he never allowed more than two runs in an appearance.

"I felt more efficient today," Furlong said. "I threw more fastballs rather than offspeed, I hit my spots, which helped a lot and got them to roll over on everything."

"You look at all the arms in the Shore Conference and he is right up there with those guys statistically," Johnson said of Furlong. "He doesn't have the velocity and a lot of the other stuff you see from some of these guys around the conference, but he knows how to pitch, probably better than anyone in the Shore Conference."

Wednesday also marked Howell's first home NJSIAA Tournament win since 2010, with the Rebels putting together some wins on the road over the last 11 years, but not on its home field until Wednesday. That accomplishment earns Howell a quarterfinal game against No. 7 Monroe, which will be played Friday at Old Bridge High School, with Howell as the home team.

"One thing I was really happy with is we have won three times in this tournament as a 15 seed and I think in each of those occasions, the other teams overlooked us," Johnson said. "They looked at our record, didn't see a ton of Division I guys on our roster and didn't realize who we played during the regular season. Our guys knew, as soon as we drew Manalapan, this was going to be a tough game. Throw the seeds out, we had to play a great ballgame and I was really proud of them for not looking past this game at all."

Box Score

Howell 3, Manalapan 1

1234567RHE
Manalapan (12-13)0000001050
Howell (20-6)200001X321

Pitching

ManalapanIPHRERBBSOPC
Tyler Kane (L, 3-5)6233511110
HowellIPHRERBBSOPC
Dan Furlong (W, 8-1)75112374

Top Hitters

ManalapanGame Stats
Dylan Reiner2-3
Chris Silva1-2, 2B
HowellGame Stats
Nick Gomes1-2, 2B, BB, 2 RBI
Dan Furlong1-2, BB, 2 R
Braden Walsh0-1, HBP, RBI