Baseball – Gracia Sparks Ranney to First Ever NJSIAA Group Championship
HAMILTON TWP. -- Pat Geroni has coached his fair share of Division I baseball players, but he is more than willing to state, unequivocally, that current Ranney junior A.J. Gracia is at the top of the list.
That is why Geroni wants him first on any list he makes, whether it is the batting order or the starting pitcher in Ranney's first ever NJSIAA Non-Public B championship game Wednesday at DeMeo Field.
Gracia was the catalyst Wednesday night against Immaculata. The Duke University commit homered on the first at-bat of the game, drew a leadoff walk in the sixth to start the winning rally and threw 5 2/3 dominant innings as the Panthers pulled away with a 10-1 win over Immaculata to capture the program's first ever NJSIAA group title.
"I have playing with a lot of these kids since seven or eight years old," Gracia said. "To make history for the school -- you can never have another first, so it feels great."
The night started with a bang for Ranney thanks to its starting pitcher, as well as a defensive miscue by the Spartans. On the eighth pitch of the leadoff at-bat Gracia hit a pop-up in foul ground on the first-base side and Immaculata first baseman Christian Martell dropped it for an error.
"It seemed like all day, even the infielders on our team, were having a little bit of trouble with the wind, so I just got lucky," Gracia said. "He kept going away, away, away and then I guess he missed in and I did some damage."
Two pitches later, Gracia crushed the 10th pitch of the at-bat -- a middle-in fastball -- into the trees beyond the right-field fence for a 1-0 Ranney lead.
"That was crazy," Gracia said. "My heartrate was through the roof. Rounding the bases, obviously I was amped up, but I feel like once I got in the dugout, I had to east the heartrate, because I knew I had to focus on the mound."
"We have a lot of great players and I've coached a lot of great players and this is no disrespect to anybody else: that's the best baseball player I have ever coached," Ranney coach Pat Geroni said of Gracia. "So he has to get the ball in that moment. And he wants the ball. When A.J. said, 'Hey, I'm good to go,' there is no decision to make: he gets the ball. He performs on this stage over and over again."
Immaculata scratched a run across in the bottom of the second thanks to some sloppy play from Ranney as well. Starting pitcher Josh Thompson led off with a line-drive single into centerfield and he moved to second base on a passed ball and to third on a balk by Gracia. One more passed ball with two out allowed Thompson to score and tie the game.
The Spartans made Ranney sweat through the end of the fifth inning, with the score still knotted at 1. Immaculata second baseman Troy Rabosky started double-plays in the third and fourth innings, rolling a 4-6-3 double-play on Gracia to end the third and catching a line drive off the bat of junior second baseman Jack Tallent for the first out and doubling off junior shortstop Brett Wehringer at second base for the first two outs of the fourth after Ranney had two on and none out.
"We read the articles and stuff about this game, so we definitely felt like the favorite coming in, which we're not used to," Gracia said. "Last year and even in the last game, we've just always been the underdog, so being the favorite felt good, but it puts a little extra pressure on you."
Gracia, however, was up for the challenge on the mound, posting scoreless innings in the third through fifth innings. Immaculata put two on on the fifth with a leadoff single by Timmy Cawley and a two-out walk by freshman Jayden Capindica with a base open, but Gracia ended the threat with what might have been the biggest of his nine strikeouts.
"I didn't have my best fastball today, but I was able to get everything over for a strike," Gracia said. "I tried not to walk too many people and just minimize the damage when guys got on base and that's all she wrote."
Thompson matched him for five innings and while he only struck out one, the sophomore right-hander frustrated Ranney with a deceptive fastball that generated three pop outs and four weak fly outs.
"(Thompson) was pitching up in the zone, he was missing barrels," Geroni said. "We came into this game and said the one thing we can't do is we can't pop up and we've got to limit our strikeouts. We can't have easy outs and for the first five innings, that's pretty much all we did is make a bunch of easy outs, which is a credit to their pitcher."
Gracia then came up to lead off the sixth and took a walk on five pitches before stealing second base with a 2-2 count on Wehringer. The Panthers caught a break when Wehringer's pop-up into shallow left-field landed thanks to a miscommunication on defense by Immaculata, but Thompson bounced back with a strikeout.
A pitch in the dirt gave Gracia just enough time to motor into third with a head-first slide and the hustle paid off when Tallent ripped a one-hop shot off the glove of third baseman Jayson Labrador for a go-ahead RBI single.
"I know I have the power to hit balls out, but I knew I wasn't going to get anything like that to hit again," Gracia said. "I was just trying to take what they gave me, work out at-bats, because at the end of the day, it's a free base.
"I always want to be patient. Even the home run came on a ten-pitch at-bat, so I'm always trying to be patient and make sure I get my pitch. It's easy to get excited in this atmosphere. It was great."
Junior third baseman Diego Tavarez stepped in two batters later and smoked a two-run single to right-field to stretch Ranney's lead to 4-1.
"This is the kind of game we have played all year," Geroni said. "We wear teams out and we break games open. We get a lot of credit for hitting home runs, but we play small-ball at a really high level."
Gracia punched out the first two batters of the sixth inning and had the third set-up with a 1-2 count before losing him to a walk. With Gracia at 108 pitches, Geroni made the move to the bullpen and junior left-hander Marcello Mastroianni recorded the final out of the inning with a check-swing groundout to junior Glen Cantalupo at first base.
If the 4-1 lead wasn't enough to put Geroni at east closing out the game, Ranney's offense all ended the drama in the top of the seventh with a six-run outburst. Wehringer slashed a groundball through an opening in the middle of the infield to make it 5-1, followed two batters later by an RBI single by Tallent to up the lead to 6-1.
Cantalupo tacked on two more with a two-run doubled inside the third-base bag and the scoring came to a close on a sacrifice fly by junior catcher Lou Spadafora and a bases-loaded walk by Gracia.
Mastroianni walked twice in the seventh in his first and only two plate appearances on the season, then took the ball again in the seventh. After inducing a fly ball to Gracia in center for the first out, Mastroianni struck out the next two batters to end the game and set off the celebrations of Ranney's first overall state championship.
Gracia pitched in several rolls this season -- starter, middle-relief, closer -- but in each of the past two games, with all of his pitchers eligible, Geroni tapped Gracia as his starter. Ranney's fourth-year coach took it a step further Wednesday by letting Gracia blow past the 90-pitch mark for the first time this season -- noteworthy for a pitcher who did not pitch all of last year due to an elbow injury he sustained as a freshman.
"It feels great that coach Geroni has confidence in me," Gracia said. "It's been a real up-and-down year on the mound for me, so just going out there confident is what I always try and do and I ended up pitching a pretty good game."
The home run and stolen base also added to his robust season totals. Gracia now has 12 home runs -- second in the Shore Conference behind new single-season record-holder Joe Stanzione of Middletown South -- and a Shore-Conference-best 35 stolen bases.
"He is just so dynamic offensively," Geroni said of Gracia. "His position-player package is unreal. He bats leadoff because you have to give him the most at-bats. Plus, our seven, eight and nine in the lineup are super productive, so it's not like he never hits with anybody on."
Ranney's first ever state championship could set the stage for even bigger things in 2023, when the Panthers are due to return every starter except for senior outfielder and Delaware commit Charlie Chropuvka. The only player on the team who was in the program prior to Geroni taking the job in 2019, Chropuvka went 1-for-3 with a run scored in his last game and hit two long foul balls, one of which missed out on being a home run by about five feet.
"Charlie has been here for the low-point for the baseball program," Gracia said. "We wanted to do this for him. He has been here from the beginning, so this is a great way for him to end it as a senior."
In addition to winning the Non-Public B championship, Ranney scored wins over Non-Public A champion Don Bosco, Monmouth County champion Middletown South, nationally-ranked Poly Prep in Brooklyn, Delbarton and 20-time state champion Gloucester Catholic. Losses to St. John Vianney in the Monmouth County Tournament and Jackson Memorial in the Shore Conference Tournament will serve as fuel for the fire next season, when the Panthers hope to make a bid for the No. 1 ranking in the state.
For now, though, the Panthers are focused on celebrating a first for the program.
"The whole year, you could just tell we were all excited for the future," Gracia said. "We have 99 percent of our team coming back, so obviously, we'll be looking to win it all again next year. It's good to have this one, though."
Ranney 10, Immaculata 1
|A.J. Gracia (W, 3-3)||5.2||3||1||0||3||9||108|
|Marcello Mastroianni (SV, 2)||1.1||0||0||0||0||2||15|
|Josh Thompson (L, 6-3)||5.2||7||4||3||2||1||108|
|A.J. Gracia||1-2, HR, 3 BB, 3 R, 2 RBI, SB|
|Brett Wehringer||2-5, 2 R, RBI|
|Jack Tallent||2-4, 2 R, RBI|
|Glen Cantalupo||1-3, 2B, R, 2 RBI|
|Lou Spadafora||1-1, 2 BB, RBI|
|Diego Tavarez||1-4, 2 RBI|
|Charlie Chropuvka||1-3, BB, R|
|Josh Thompson||1-2, BB, R|