EAST BRUNSWICK - Zack Johnston entered Tuesday as the Shore Conference leader in strikeouts, but the Raritan senior dominated without missing many Haddonfield bats in the Group II final and it was exactly what his team needed.

It took Johnston just 73 pitches to fire a three-hitter in a 5-1 Rockets win over Haddonfield, which sends Raritan to the Group II final this weekend against a powerhouse Pascack Hills club.

In requiring so few pitches to finish off Tuesday's game, Johnston made himself available for 77 pitches if the Group II game is scheduled for Saturday. The NJSIAA will release the schedule for Saturday and Sunday at Hamilton Veterans Park on Wednesday.

"I always try to be at my best out there and try to get a win," Johnston said. "To get to a state final just adds to that."

Raritan senior Zack Johnston. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Raritan senior Zack Johnston. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Johnston struck out only two batters, but did not walk or hit a batter while leaning on a Raritan defense that committed just one error on 20 balls put in play and turned a double play to end the fifth inning. He never needed more than 15 pitches to finish an inning and threw 10 or fewer five of the seven innings.

"The first inning came around and they just started hitting the ball," Johnston said. "They were attacking my fastball so I just pitched to contact and hoped my defense made outs for me and they did."

The only blemish on Johnston's line was a solo home run by catcher John Cristino in with two out in the bottom of the fourth inning, which cut Raritan's lead to 5-1.

"He's the big guy in the lineup," Raritan coach Jeff Struble said of Cristino. "Going after those first couple guys and getting at least one out was key. Then we could pitch to him and a afford to make a mistake. He's a special kid."

"Coach said just attack him," Johnston said. "You have to attack him and see how he does. We were up 5-0 by the time he hit that home run, so it didn't really matter at that point. I just kept attacking."

Raritan built that 5-0 lead thanks to a defensive meltdown by Haddonfield in the top of the third inning, followed by some more conventional offense from the Rockets one inning later. The Bulldogs committed all four of their errors during the third inning, which led to three Raritan runs. Johnston and junior center fielder Tyler Brunor both reached on errors to start the rally and Haddonfield pitcher Dylan Heine threw the ball away on a sacrifice by sophomore right fielder Ryan Kasmer to allow Johnston to score.

Junior third baseman Jake Tennant followed with a sacrifice fly to score Bruno and Kasmar came around to score on another throwing error by Heine, this time while attempting to start a double play at second base.

Junior Shawn Ohea led off the fourth with a walk and Johnston followed with a double down the right field line to set up the top of the order with none out.

Bruno and Kasmer followed with back-to-back RBI singles to extend the lead to 5-0.

The Rockets and Johnston got a scare in the top of the sixth when Haddonfield reliever Chris Brown hit Johnston on his pitching wrist. Johnston, however, stayed in the game and recorded the final three outs, including a strikeout to end the game.

"Yeah that was a little scary," Struble said. "High and inside and it caught him near his pitching hand. I was just hoping it wasn't anything serious, but he's a tough kid and he's a pit bull, so I knew he would bounce back. It looks like it's nothing serious so that was good."

Raritan will make its first appearance in an NJSIAA Group final since losing to Wall in the Group III final in 2004 - the year Wall became the first Shore Conference team to win a division, county, conference and NJSIAA group title in the same year. The Rockets' last trip to the Group II final was one year earlier, when the Rockets won their lone overall state championship.

Struble was a part of that Raritan championship run, although not on the winning side. The fifth-year head coach played on Manchester's South Jersey Group II championship team that lost to Raritan in the Group II semifinal before Raritan went on to defeat Hanover Park in the final.

"We were pretty hot and Raritan beat us," Struble said of his playing days as a senior at Manchester. "They got us that day, so I shared that with my guys. (Former head coach) T.J. (O'Donnell) makes sure to remind me of that whenever he gets the chance."

In order to win another one, Raritan will have to go through a 29-2 Pascack Hills team that is likely to have a legitimate chance to finish No. 1 in the state with one more win. The Cowboys are currently on a 17-game winning streak and have not lost since April 28.

In addition to rolling through their first five NJSIAA Tournament games - including a 16-0 drubbing of Madison on Tuesday - they won the Bergen County Tournament for the first time in 31 years by beating non-public powers St. Joseph Montvale and Bergen Catholic in consecutive games.

Struble can rest a little easier knowing that Johnson is able to pitch in that game even if it is scheduled for Saturday. A Sunday game, meanwhile, would mean all pitchers on both teams would be available to throw the maximum 110 pitches.

As for Johnston, he was blunt about his preference, regardless of what day the game is.

"Yes," he quickly responded when asked if he preferred to start. "I want the ball."


Box Score

Raritan 5, Haddonfield 1

Raritan (21-5)0032000591
Haddonfield (17-6)0001000134


Zack Johnston (W, 8-1)73110273
Dylan Heime (L)56522596
Chris Brown23000343

Top Hitters

Ryan Kasmer2-4, R, RBI
Zack Johnston1-2, 2B, 2 R
Tyler Bruno1-4, R, RBI
Dan Fiore2-3
Alex Lamattino2-4
John Cristino1-3, HR, R, RBI



More From Shore Sports Network