RED BANK – Over the past several days, the NJSIAA has faced a significant amount of public backlash for enforcing the letter of the law in a case that adversely affected the highest-profile amateur baseball player in the country, who made a seemingly noble decision to leave a national power to play with his childhood friends for his hometown school.

As clear as the rule on the books that Barnegat’s athletic department overlooked is, the reason for the general discontent with the NJSIAA is equally so. In the 48 hours that followed the announcement of the governing body’s decision on the ruling on Jason Groome’s eligibility – or lack thereof for the next week-and-a-half-to-two-weeks – few people found much of anything good that came from the decision.

Groome will have to remove himself from competition for two weeks, relegated instead to bullpen sessions. The teams scouting him will have at least two fewer chances to evaluate the player who remains the favorite by many to be the first choice in Major League Baseball’s First Year Player Draft on June 9. The players on the teams that were due to face Groome during his period of ineligibility – Red Bank Catholic and Pinelands Regional High Schools – likely missed their chance to step into the batter’s box against a likely Major Leaguer and possible all-star talent.

Senior Jared Kacso tosses six strong innings and drove in the winning run with a seventh-inning double Saturday night. (Photo by Matt Manley)

The impact even went beyond baseball. Saturday night’s game at Count Basie Park against Red Bank Catholic – the No. 2 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and the No. 6 team in the state in the most recent rankings – was part of the Strike Out Autism benefit to raise awareness for childhood autism. Red Bank Catholic officials were expecting as many as 4,000 people to show up to see Groome pitch under the lights and each would have passed a donation jar at some point in the evening. Without the main attraction, the draw was more in line with what the other nine benefit locations around the Shore Conference drew throughout the day Saturday.

With the obvious exception of the two teams that picked up forfeit victories over Barnegat due to Jason Groome’s appearance in those games, it was hard to find anyone who benefitted from the NJSIAA’s decision.

That all changed Saturday night, when the chaos in the Barnegat baseball program finally found the unlikeliest of benefactors: the Barnegat baseball team.

With their star pitcher ineligible to face one of the state’s top lineups and its 2-4 record needing a severe makeover, the Bengals turned to Plan B. Senior Jared Kacso had only pitched in relief this season but has been in line from the start of the season to be Barnegat’s No. 2 pitcher behind Groome.

Saturday, he was the default No. 1 and his performance on the mound and at the plate not only bought time for the Bengals as they await Groome’s return, but breathed new life into a season that now looks as promising as ever.

“I got up early this morning and the first thing I did was send a text to Kacso,” Barnegat coach Dan McCoy said. “I said to him, ‘Jared, I want you to have fun today. You’ve earned this spot to pitch in this game. I have 100 percent confidence that we’re going to win. Go out and get ‘em.’”

If the Bengals’ blueprint was to ride its best player past the powerful Caseys, that plan did not change – only the principle party involved. Kacso held RBC to three runs in six innings, long enough for him to deliver the go-ahead RBI double in the bottom of the seventh and lift Barnegat to a 4-3 win over the Shore’s No. 2 team.

“We wanted to prove everybody wrong,” Kacso said. “No one thought we could come in here and beat one of the best teams in the state without the number one pitcher in the country. This is the most fired up I’ve ever seen a group of guys. We were ready to prove everybody wrong.”

“We were not doing a good job handling being the team at the top that everybody wants to beat,” said McCoy, whose team was 1-2 in games in which Groome did not pitch prior to the NJSIAA’s ruling. “We play better when we’re the underdog. We’ve never really been in that role before as the top team and playing more as the underdog now is more natural because we’ve done it.”

The go-ahead hit was the second RBI of the game for Kacso, who finished 2-for-4 on the evening. On the mound, his work was even more instrumental. Facing an RBC lineup that entered play Saturday averaging 9.8 runs per game, the NJIT recruit allowed three earned runs on six hits, a pair of walks and a pair of hit batters. While he only struck out two, Kacso leaned heavily on his breaking ball and changeup to keep the Caseys hitters off-balance and got the help he needed from his defense, which committed only one error behind him.

“I had to throw some offspeed today and this is probably the most offspeed I’ve thrown in any game in my career,” Kacso said. “I know this is a great lineup and I couldn’t blow it by these guys, so I really had to work on my offspeed stuff. The first couple innings, I didn’t really have it and I couldn’t get my changeup over the plate.

“Once that fourth inning hit and we tied the game, I really dialed in and started to stay on top of my changeup and my curveball. Nobody really put a good swing on my offspeed pitches, so if they weren’t going to hurt me on it, I was just going to keep throwing it.”

Prior to Saturday, Kacso had appeared only in relief and earned a decision each time. He followed up four innings by Groome with three hitless innings in a season-opening win against Point Boro (now a forfeit loss), then gave up two runs in a loss to Manchester four days later. With seven days of rest, Kacso lasted 104 pitches in his first start of the season before giving way to junior and starting shortstop Aaron McLaughlin.

Kacso faced his fair share of adversity in the game. After giving his team a 1-0 lead with an RBI single in the first inning, he hit RBC’s first batter of the game, shortstop Even Madigan, and surrendered an RBI double to junior center fielder Dom Caraballo. The defense picked Kacso up right away, with McLaughlin taking the relay throw from the outfield and cutting off Caraballo at third as he was trying to extend his double to a triple.

Madigan and Caraballo again reached in the bottom of the third with one out and junior second baseman Aaron Ahn push Madigan across the plate with a sacrifice fly to right field. Caraballo then stole second and scored on an RBI single to right field by senior catcher Doug Facendo, giving the Caseys a 3-1 lead.

In the bottom of the fourth, Kacso surrendered a leadoff single to senior right fielder Mike Spinelli, but notched a strikeout and a ground out to escape the inning after Spinelli moved to second on a sacrifice by junior first baseman Mike Veit. In the fifth, Ahn lifted a double deep down the left-field line to set RBC up with second and third and one out, but Kacso coaxed Facendo into a pop-out in foul territory and induced an inning-ending ground out by junior third baseman Anthony DeRosa.

Kacso’s last challenge came in the sixth, when he hit No. 9 hitter Pat Leonard in the helmet with two out to bring up Madigan with the go-ahead run in scoring position. On a 2-2 pitch, Madigan hit a one-hopper back to the mound that Kacso picked and flipped to first for the inning-ending out.

“Whenever we had a force play, I was trying to get a ground ball,” said Kacso, who recorded eight groundball outs, four flyball outs and three infield popouts. “I really, really tried to work the outside corner. I mostly just wanted to shoot the knees and get ground balls that was the most important thing.”

Barnegat’s game-winning rally in the seventh started when Red Bank Catholic right-hander John Pocchia’s first-pitch slider caught Barnegat junior second baseman and No. 9 hitter Mimi Padilla in the helmet. McCoy opted not to bunt with McLaughlin or center fielder Collin O’Conner and both flew out to center field, leaving the inning up to Kacso.

On a 1-1 pitch, Kacso took a healthy swing and muscled a high fly ball down the left-field line. The ball landed just inside the line between DeRosa, Madigan and Leonard and bounced high off the artificial surface. Bryan Benzinger – pinch-running for Padilla – was off on contact and flew around third base with the go-ahead run as Kacso pulled into second base.

“I’m not going to lie: I was trying to go yard,”Kacso said. “I tried to swing as hard as I possibly good. I saw that ball go in the air and I was like, ‘Man, this is going to be an out and we’re going to have to go back out (tied) for the seventh.’ But then all of a sudden, I see it bounce and I’m standing on second base. I was pretty pumped.”

McLaughlin, a Rutgers commit, then took the mound in search of his first save and promptly walked Caraballo, who had already stolen second base earlier in the game. Caraballo did not take off, however, and Ahn hit a sharp ground ball to Padilla at second. The sophomore fielded it cleanly and started a 4-6-3 double play with junior shortstop Anthony Lani, who moved in from right field when McLaughlin took over on the mound. McLaughlin then closed the game out by getting Facendo to pop out to shortstop.

“He didn’t want to come out of the game,” McCoy said of Kacso. “He goes, ‘I’ve got one more, I’ve got one more,’ and I said, ‘No, you’re finished.’ Aaron is our guy for that spot. He drives me nuts sometimes when he walks guys, but he throws hard, he’s got a great curveball and if he gets ahead of batters, it’s pretty hard to put a good swing on him.”

Barnegat scored its first run of the game with some first-inning small-ball. McLaughlin led off the game with a walk and moved to second on a sacrifice by O’Conner. Kacso then jumped on the first pitch from sophomore starter Jake Birnbaum and smacked it through the right side to score McLaughlin from second.

The Bengals also responded quickly to RBC’s two-run third by putting up two in the top of the fourth. Junior third baseman Justin Diefenbach reached on an infield single to lead things off and Leonard dropped an attempted running catch on catcher Max Ritner’s long fly ball to left field, giving Barnegat runners at second and third with none out.

First baseman Nik Caputo plated Diefenback with the second Barnegat run with a ground out to second base and senior Eric Becker followed with a line-drive single to left to chase home Ritner from third and even the score.

The Caseys then turned to Pocchia, who not only suffered his first loss of the season Saturday but allowed his first run of the season. Pocchia entered Saturday’s game with 17 scoreless innings to open the season and extended the streak to 20 1/3 frames before finally conceding a run.

Although Kacso’s pitching performance Saturday was likely the biggest win of his career given how much Barnegat needed to win the game, it was not his first big game nor his first big win on the mound. Kacso started the Ocean County Tournament championship game as a sophomore and earlier that season, defeated St. John Vianney at that year’s Strike Out Autism event at Central Regional High School. Vianney went on to win the NJSIAA Non-Public A championship that same year and finished No. 1 in N.J.

“Going into today, I was locked in from 9 a.m. all the way to game time,” Kacso said. “I knew I had to lead these guys. These guys are all my brothers and sometimes you’ve got to look up to the older guys. I’ve played on this field before, I won on this field against Wall (in the 2014 Shore Conference Tournament semifinals) so I’ve seen how it’s done and I’ve done it.”

Barnegat still faces a stiff challenge to reach the requisite .500 winning percentage by May 14 in order to qualify for the Shore Conference Tournament, but Saturday’s win alleviates a great deal of the pressure the Bengals were potentially facing if they lost and fell to 2-5 overall. They will take on two sub-.500 teams in Jackson Liberty and Pinelands this coming week and will face a solid Group IV squad in Hillsborough this coming weekend. The Bengals will then have to take on unbeaten Point Boro, which earned a forfeit victory over the Bengals because Groome shut their potent lineup out for four innings on opening day.

The following game against Manchester on April 27 is set to be the first in which Groome is eligible to return, although with the Ocean County Tournament scheduled for the ensuing weekend, McCoy is likely to save his ace to pitch either in Saturday’s opening round of Sunday’s quarterfinal, should Barnegat win on Saturday.

If there was any chance that Barnegat was in danger of missing the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II playoffs, that possibility is highly unlikely thanks to the significant number of power points Saturday’s win over RBC will likely carry. The top 16 teams in the South Jersey Group II section with respect to power points qualify for the sectional tournament.

“We’re a good baseball team and we’re really good when Jay’s on the mound,” McCoy said. “We could be the best team in the state when Jay is on the mound. I firmly believe that. When he’s not pitching, we’re still a very good baseball team. If we hit the baseball, we’re going to be tough to beat.”

For the next two weeks, the Bengals will continue to tread water without Groome while the left-hander waits and serves as the most highly-touted cheerleader in the country until the NJSIAA clears him for action. As the Bengals showed Saturday, not only are they capable of treading water, but they can thrive.

“It’s awesome to have him here,” Kacso said of Groome. “I think it says a lot about him that he’s here at the games, cheering us on and showing us support. It’s a great feeling. We know he’s going to be back and when he does, we’ll be that much better.”

“It’s been a rough couple of days, but the program is not defined by one guy and Jay would be the first to tell you that,” McCoy said. “I’ve been around sports for a long time and this is probably the most proud I’ve been of any bunch I’ve ever coached.”