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HAMILTON TWP. -- When Owen Stewart was hired as Rumson-Fair Haven's new head varsity baseball coach before the would-be 2020 season, one of the first conversations he had was with his predecessor, Kevin James.

James's advice? Don't make any plans away from the field in early June.

"He called me right away and told me, 'Get ready to be competing for state championships with this group,'" Stewart recalled. "And he was right. This is something these guys have worked a long time for."

Three seasons later (what was supposed to be the first season was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak), Rumson has indeed blossomed into a program that is a regular in the late stages of New Jersey's postseason and one of the state's more consistent programs. In each of the last three seasons -- 2021 through 2023 -- the Bulldogs have finished with exactly 22 wins.

In the NJSIAA Group II championship game Saturday at Bob DeMeo Field inside Veterans Park, the Bulldogs needed to get to a 23rd win in order to make school history and unfortunately for them, that 22-win consistency became proved to be as much of a curse as it has been a blessing.

Senior right-hander Jackson Hinchcliffe pitched yet another gem on the mound for Rumson-Fair Haven, but a Sean Busanic RBI bloop single in the bottom of the sixth was all Pascack Valley needed to top the Bulldogs, 1-0, to win its third group title in six seasons.

For the Bulldogs, Saturday marked the first time the program had every made it to a state championship game and they left Hamilton one big hit and a blooper shy of heading back to northern Monmouth County with their first championship trophy in baseball.

"Obviously, it's not the outcome we wanted," Hinchcliffe said. "We worked so hard to get here and we deserved to be here.

"This is something we have never done in school history. This group won a Monmouth County Tournament two years ago, sectionals two years in a row and I think we've built up a great program for years to come."

Hinchcliffe has been nearly untouchable during Rumson's run to its first ever Group II title-game appearance and he was just that again on Saturday. The University of Richmond commit pitched his second complete game of these playoffs, allowing one run on five hits with no walks and seven strikeouts. It was the fifth appearance is games played by Rumson during the NJSIAA Tournament.

"This is what he has been fighting for for the last three years," Stewart said of Hinchcliffe. "The last couple of years in the playoffs, he has kind of ended up as the odd man out with Charlie Jones and John Goodes getting most of the innings. This year, he just wanted it and he fought for it."

Hinchcliffe finished the state tournament 4-1 with a 0.57 ERA in 24 2/3 with 14 hits allowed, three walks and 32 strikeouts, including a no-hitter with 10 strikeouts in round one vs. Nottingham. For the season, Hinchcliffe finished 6-2 with a 1.00 ERA and 63 strikeouts against just nine walks.

Unfortunately for Hinchcliffe and his team, the offense could not muster the little production necessary to make a winning out of its ace one more time. Pascack Hills junior left-hander Joey Giordano -- who is also committed to play at Richmond at the next level -- matched zeroes with Hinchcliffe at every stop and finished with a three-hit shutout that included eight strikeouts against three walks.

Both pitchers traded scoreless frames for the first five full innings and Giordano spun a one-two-three sixth to put the pressure back on Hinchcliffe to match him. Hinchcliffe retired seven straight batters heading into the bottom of the sixth inning and made it eight in a row with a groundball out to open the frame.

Giordano started the winning rally with a one-out single to left and catcher Dominick Musco followed with a line-drive single to left-center that was bobbled, allowing Giordano to sprint into third with the go-ahead run and one out.

Hinchcliffe hit Ryan Belcolle to load the bases with one out, but the senior induced a foul pop-out to catcher Owen Kenney for the second out.

Hinchcliffe got ahead of the senior leftfielder, Busanic, with strike one and jammed him with a 0-1 offering, but Busanic muscled a blooper into the outfield and kept it just inside the leftfield line to easily score Giordano from third with the tiebreaking run.

"That was the pitch I wanted to throw and the spot I wanted," Hinchcliffe said. "The outcome, he just found a hole. Ten out of ten times, I'm throwing that same pitch. No regrets."

"He jammed the kid and it landed fair by a foot-and-a-half," Stewart said. "That's the difference in the game. One pitch, they did a great job on it. Hats off to them."

Musco attempted to score from second, but Rumson-Fair Haven junior leftfielder Jack Riva threw him out at home plate, with Kenney applying the tag for the final out of the sixth.

Giordano made sure the run stood up by recording the first out of the seventh on a groundout to second base, then striking out the final two batters of the game.

Although Rumson could not solve Giordano, the Bulldogs had their chances. The leadoff hitter reached for Rumson in five of the first six innings, but the Bulldogs could not convert any of them into runs. Sophomore centerfielder Parker Shenman led the first inning off with a walk and the sixth with a single, followed by a stolen base in each inning.

In the first, Shenman made it to third base with two out and Giordano left him there. In the sixth, he stole second with none out, but was stuck there after two strikeouts. A wild pitch moved Shenman to third and Kenney worked a walk before stealing second, giving the Bulldogs two runners in scoring position.

Giordano buckled down and induced a comebacker to the mound to end the threat.

Senior second baseman Griffin Shenman led off the third with a double to the warning track in leftfield and advanced to third with two out, but was left there.

"We just kind of got away from our plan from the last couple weeks," Stewart said. "(Giordano) was moving pretty fast between pitches and we had been doing a really good job of controlling the situation: controlling our breathing, controlling our emotions and when a guy works that quickly and is that good, it makes it more challenging to do all of those things."

Rumson's offense has been the least consistent part of its team over the course of the season, but was reliable during the state tournament, especially when it came to scoring early. Not only had the Bulldogs scored in the first inning of each of their last four tournament games, but they scored at least two in all four first innings while averaging 3.5 runs in the first inning in those four rounds. That average is boosted by the seven runs Rumson scored in the first inning of its 9-0 win over Seneca in the Group II semifinals.

The Bulldogs continued to create chances after the first inning but could not break through.

"We have scored early in a lot of games," Stewart said. "We missed on that opportunity in the first inning and it becomes a little bit of a different game than we have been playing over the last two weeks in this tournament. Then the pressure starts to build and it happens. These guys are young and these games move fast."

With 22 wins in each of the last three seasons, Rumson has set a high standard for the program -- one it will have to pursue next season with a lot of unproven talent elevating to new roles. The Bulldogs are graduating a starting catcher (Kenney), shortstop (Reece Moroney), second baseman (Griffin Shenman), first baseman (Spencer Hobson), rightfielder (Cade LaGrassa) and designated hitter (Brayden Dill) from the lineup. They also played the season without All-Shore shortstop Charlie Tallman, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.

"We played the entire season without maybe one of our top offensive players that we expected to have coming into the year," Stewart said. "What we did on the backs of the pitching and defense this year was really incredible."

The pitching staff is bracing for an even bigger hit. Four of the five pitchers the Bulldogs used during this postseason run -- Hinchcliffe, John Goodes, Matt Bruno and Cal Champeau -- are moving on to graduation.

The core of next year's returning team will be Parker Shenman, Riva and third baseman Aaron Del Tin with the bat and sophomore Owen O'Toole and junior Jackson Gallagher on the mound.

Stewart is optimistic the success of the last three years has strengthened the baseball culture in the program and throughout the community enough that the Bulldogs can realistically chase state championships every year. Saturday's opponent is an example of how it often happens for teams that are legitimate Group II contenders: Pascack Hills won back-to-back titles in 2018 and 2019 and after coming up short in each of the past two seasons, the Broncos made it back and won again this season.

"We have a lot of guys on jayvee, even in middle school who come to our games and want to be a part of it," Stewart said. "We had a Little League team playing a game while we were practicing and they had a boom box in the dugout playing all the same songs our guys do.

"I don't know if that (the music) is the effect I want this team to have on the next wave of players, but it's definitely exciting to see the impact this group has had on the school and the community when it comes to baseball. They have definitely set the bar."


Box Score

Pascack Hills 1, Rumson-Fair Haven 0

Rumson-FH (22-6)0000000032
Pascack Hills (22-7)000001X150


Jackson Hinchcliffe (L, 6-2)65110783
Joey Giordano (W, 4-2)73003898

Top Hitters

Rumson-Fair HavenGame Stats
Parker Shenman1-2, BB, 2 SB
Owen Kenney1-2, BB, SB
Griffin Shenman1-2, 2B
Pascack HillsGame Stats
Sean Busanic2-3, RBI
Joey Giordano2-3, 2B, R
Dominick Musco1-3


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