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FARMINGDALE -- With it another all-around, winning performance Friday against East Brunswick in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship game, not only did the 2022 Howell baseball team end a 28-year drought without a sectional championship; according to their coach, this Rebels teams cemented itself as the best in school history.

Junior Russell Halvorsen led off the bottom of the first with a home run, sophomore Joe Zito added a two-run shot in the third and senior pitchers Nick Gomes and Jason Pace combined to shut down the Bears on the way to an 8-2 win and the program's first sectional championship since 1994.

In addition to claiming a long-awaited sectional championship, Howell broke the single-season program record with its 23 win of the season. Friday's win now makes this year's Howell team the first ever to win 23 games, the first to win a sectional title since 1994, the first to win the outright Shore Conference Class A North division championship, and the first ever to win both in the same season.

Photo: Howell Baseball
Photo: Howell Baseball
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"They are the best team in school history," Howell coach Eric Johnson said. "It's not even debatable anymore, really. No team here has ever won more games, no team has ever won A North outright and a section in the same year. They hit all the checkmarks today and cemented their legacy, regardless of what happens the rest of the way."

Halvorsen's solo blast tied the game after East Brunswick scratched a run across in the top of the first and the Rebels scored three runs in the bottom of the second -- all with two out -- to take the lead. Howell took the lead on a strike-three wild pitch with two out and senior Thomas Strauch followed by drawing a bases-loaded walk. A two-out error allowed the third run of the inning to score, giving Howell a 4-1 lead.

The leadoff home run is another highlight in a brilliant junior season for Halvorsen, who is hitting .447/.563/.829 with 9 doubles, six home runs, 32 runs scored and six RBI. His season includes a two-homer game against Middletown North in the Monmouth County Tournament that ended with Halvorsen hitting a walk-off home run in the bottom of the eighth.

Whether it's the first at-bat of the game or the last, Halvorsen has proved to be Howell's tone-setter.

With Halvorsen already on the board with a homer, Zito went yard for a two-run home run in the bottom of the third to extend Howell's lead to 6-1. The Rebels later tacked on a run each in the fifth and sixth innings, with Strauch drawing another bases-loaded walk to make it 7-2 and senior Jeremiah Wojenski singling home Howell's eighth and final run.

Pace pitched the last three innings in relief of Gomes, who injured his left pitching wrist diving into second base while running the bases in the bottom of the fourth. Pace gave up a run on two hits with six strikeouts after Gomes gave up one run over the first four. Pace battled through the first two innings, then ended it emphatically, striking out the side in order to seal the victory for the Rebels.

"The silver lining was Gomes was already getting up there with his pitch county, so we already started getting Pace loose," Johnson said. "He came in and made a couple little mistakes in his first inning, then he settled in during his second inning and then he came out in the seventh and just mowed them down. He is a great teammate and he has been that way all year."

In the hours following his team's win, Johnson received congratulatory calls and texts from former players and coaches, as well as coaches from around the Shore Conference. Johnson said Manalapan coach Brian Boyce, whose team lost to Howell in the first round of this year's tournament and has waged many a battle on the field against the Rebels, lent Johnson tarps for the field and offered some advice about coaching and playing in a championship game.

Johnson played two championship games while a junior on Howell's 1994 team that reached the Group IV championship game and lost to Elizabeth. Friday, however, was the first time since taking over the head coaching job in 2010 that the Rebels have been in a tournament championship of any kind.

"I don't know if this is the most talented team I have had, but it's the best team," Johnson said. "They embrace what it means to be a team. Guys are constantly helping each other, talking through situations and problem-solving. We went down 1-0 in the first inning and there was no panic at all. They just hit the reset button. It was great to just watch them work today."

Howell will head to Monday's Group IV semifinal game at Cherokee, where the Chiefs will host the Rebels with spot in the Group IV final on June 18 in Hamilton on the line.

"One of the things we'll be really trying to explain to them over the next couple of days is what a great opportunity this is," Johnson said. "There aren't many teams in New Jersey still playing and they have a chance to make it to the last day. I can distinctly remember the feeling in 1994, going to Toms River North to play the state final and really soaking in that feeling of being one of the last team's left. It's really special and I think these guys are really going to embrace the challenge, like they have done all year."

 

Box Score

Howell 8, East Brunswick 2

1234567RHE
East Brunswick (17-13)1000100264
Howell (23-6)132011X882

Pitching

East BrunswickIPHRERBBSOPC
Joe Ditzel (L, 4-3)24623359
Aaron Warner44214066
HowellIPHRERBBSOPC
Nick Gomes (W, 5-1)44101480
Jason Place32110649

Top Hitters

East BrunswickGame Stats
Ryan Basham2-4, RBI
Dustin McGuinness1-3, 2B, RBI
Dylan Lugo1-4, R
Vinny LaRocca2-3
HowellGame Stats
Russell Halvorsen1-3, HR, 2 BB, 3 R, RBI, SB
Joe Zito1-3, HR, BB, 2 R, 2 RBI
Jeremiah Wojenski2-4, RBI
Braden Walsh1-3, R
Devon Smith1-4, R