Baseball – Last Dance Championship Preview: Jackson vs. Cranford
Last Dance World Series Presented by RWJ Barnabas Health
Friday, July 31, 2020
At Arm & Hammer Park, Trenton, 7 p.m.
Jackson Jags (Jackson Memorial) vs. Cougars Baseball (Cranford)
Among the final eight teams left standing in the first ever Last Dance World Series - which started with more than 220 teams from around the state - six of them were comprised of players from non-public high-school programs.
The teams from Jackson and Cranford were no pushovers either, but the odds of both overcoming those prep powerhouses - Don Bosco, Bergen Catholic and Delbarton in North Jersey and Bishop Eustace, St. Joseph of Metuchen and Gloucester Catholic in the South - and meeting in the Last Dance championship game could not have been all that high.
Alas, the opening pitch of Friday's LDWS state title game at the home of the Trenton Thunder approaches with both Jackson and Cranford having asserted themselves as the best teams in their particular regions of the state.
Jackson entered the Last Dance as the unofficial top seed in South Jersey and lived up to the billing by flashing a dominant pitching staff and a deep lineup that came through in a number of crucial situations.
Cranford, meanwhile, was not the favorite in North Jersey as Jackson was in South Jersey but was even more convincing in winning its North title. The Cougars Baseball Club enters Friday averaging 9.8 runs per game and is coming off a three-game stretch in which it outscored teams from defending Group IV champion Ridgewood, Don Bosco Prep and Bergen Catholic by a combined score of 30-2.
Both teams burned through their preferred pitching options to get to Friday and will have to tap into their depth in order to clinch the overall title. Jackson coach Frank Malta asserted Wednesday night that he won't consider any of the pitchers he used to get his team to Friday night to be available to pitch in the final game. That leaves ace Matt Potok (85 pitches on Tuesday), left-handed workhorse Nick Beetel (56 pitches on Wednesday) Auburn-bound sophomore Zach Crotchfelt (60 pitches on Wednesday) and senior reliever Dan Greenwood (34 pitches on Wednesday) off Malta's list of options.
If Malta were to change his mind on any of those four, it would likely by Greenwood, who would be eligible to pitch by NJSIAA pitch-count standards, is not currently committed to playing in college next year and has proven capable of handling multiple roles on the mound.
That leaves Malta and the Jags with the following pitching on Friday night:
Joe Santoriello, RHP - The 2020 graduate threw three quality innings of relief in a pool-play win over a quality team from Manalapan and given is standing as a senior, he is a safe bet to appear at some point on Friday.
Devin Foderaro, LHP - A sophomore heading into the 2020 season, Foderaro finished off Jackson's opener in pool play on the mound and, along with Santoriello and senior Rocco LaVista, is the only other pitcher to appear on the mound during the LDWS who fits Malta's availability criteria. Speaking of LaVista...
Rocco LaVista, RHP - LaVista entered the spring as an x-factor on the pitching staff behind the big three of Potok, Beetel and Crotchfelt but nagging injuries have kept him sidelined since he appeared in Jackson's LDWS opener. Malta was not especially optimistic when asked about LaVista's status, but also said they were taking it day-by-day.
Ryan Lasko, RHP - Although he has not pitched in the LDWS, Jackson's starting centerfielder and power bat is a capable pitcher, especially in short bursts as a reliever. He pitched in the closer role for part of his junior year and while he is unlikely to start the game, he is capable to covering an inning or two.
Sage Goeke (LHP), Zach McCabe (LHP), Jordan Naffaa (RHP and Nick Storaci (RHP) - This Jackson quartet is rested and ready, having been kept on ice during the first seven games of the tournament. Like Foderaro, Goeke and McCabe are sophomore left-handers with a future in the program and could benefit from getting a taste of championship baseball. Naffa and Storaci are rising seniors and figure to see more prominent roles in 2021, but the call could be coming soon.
While Cranford coach Dennis McCaffery only had to use two pitchers to get through two games this week, they were his two hottest arms. Sophomore Will Gallagher threw a one-hit shutout against Don Bosco's Diamondbacks Baseball Club on Tuesday and despite throwing 94 pitches, he and his coach did not rule out a second appearance this week when asked about it during the postgame.
On Wednesday, it was junior left-hander Rob Salvatore who fired a six-inning complete game to push the Cougars into the championship game with a 10-0 win over Bergen Catholic's BC Crusaders squad. Both Gallagher and Salvatore have been sharp throughout the tournament, with Gallagher also throwing complete games vs. Union and Ridgewood. Salvatore, meanwhile, pitched out of the bullpen during pool play and pitched into the seventh of his first start against Montclair in week two.
With Salvatore out of the mix and Gallagher likely either unavailable or limited, Cranford's most like options are as follows:
Joe Carrea, RHP - Carrea got a good varsity look as a sophomore in 2019 despite the Cougars boasting a senior-heavy rotation and figured to be a prominent member of the 2020 staff. Carrea started Cranford's second game of pool play and got through four solid innings, but did labor with six walks in the game. With his longer track record, he would be the best bet to see extended action on the mound.
Ryan Nicolas and Dan Abrahamson - The relief duo came in to get through a shaky seventh inning in a 13-9 win over Montclair on July 21, which was 13-3 going into the last inning. Both are rested and were McCaffery's choices to close out a tight game last week.
As much as Friday's pitching scenarios are the unknown element to the championship game, it is very likely to come down to which devastating lineup can inflict the most damage. Cranford has been unstoppable from the first pitch of the tournament and the offensive numbers the Cougars put up in the first two games this week against top-notch competition make them the team with the momentum heading into Friday night.
Gallagher has been a breakout performer at shortstop and at the plate as well, while freshman Ryan Jaros has been part of the youth movement over the last three weeks as well. Ultimately, though, Cranford's offense has benefitted from the return of some experienced, productive hitters from 2019 - led by second baseman Jake DiClerico, catcher Joe Meola, first baseman Aidan Plick, outfielders Mike Murphy and Marcus Johnson and utilityman Colin Jaros. All eight have have at least one big moment or game during the tournament, making for a lineup that won't give Jackson's available staff any breaks.
Jackson's offense has also proven to be deep and dangerous, although the Jags have not had every single player clicking on the same day like Cranford has on multiple occasions. The Jags have been more reliable than dominant at the plate, although that does not apply to their hottest hitter.
Senior catcher and Rhode Island commit Tom Cartnick has been as locked-in as any player in New Jersey and after another 3-for-3 night with two doubles and an RBI in Wednesday's win over Bishop Eustace's Sader Baseball Club, his numbers are flat-out silly: 9-for-16 (.562), four doubles, one triple, two home runs, six walks and 12 RBI with an eye-popping OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) of 1.964.
While none of Jackson's hitters have been on a tournament-long tear like Cartnick, a bunch of them have had their moments. Wake-Forest-bound first baseman Carmine Petosa has driven in five runs while going 4-for-10 with two doubles in his team's last four games, including a three-RBI performance in Wednesday's win over Eustace.
Second baseman Christian Pellone has been working counts and getting on base over the past three games and went 1-for-3 with a stolen base and a run scored on Wednesday night.
Lasko has not logged a hit this week, but delivered a pair of two-run hits in the first week of the tournament, doubled vs. Washington Twp. last week, scored the tying run on Wednesday night and has played brilliant defense in centerfield.
Third baseman Jake Wendell and shortstop Ty Beck have also been sharp on the left side of the diamond and Wendell has made hard contact, even when the ball has not been falling for a hit.
The bottom of Jackson's order remains its secret weapon, led by sophomore Chris Cartnick, who was 2-for-3 with two runs scored in Tuesday's win over the SJ Falcons from St. Joseph of Metuchen. Left fielder Andrew Sefick has also reached base safely with a pair of hits over the past three games and senior right fielder Bill Petrina collected RBI singles in back-to-back games against Washington and St. Joseph.
Both teams entered the spring coming off disappointing exits in the 2019 NJSIAA Tournament that spoiled five-loss seasons. The Cougars finished 17-5 but lost to Somerville in the North Jersey Section 2, Group III quarterfinals and Jackson was stunned by No. 15 Cherokee, 5-2, in extra innings in the South Jersey Group IV first round.
After bitter defeats to end 2019 and the colossal disappointment of losing the 2020 spring season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jackson and Cranford will have a chance to make 2020 even more memorable than it might have been had their moment of glory come in the spring.
Regardless of the result, the final out Friday will mark the end of a tournament that far exceeded anyone's expectations when the idea was first floated in May and drawn-up in early June. It had its moments of uncertainty, with teams like Manasquan and Red Bank pulling out before their first game and Point Boro and Middletown South dropping out after advancing to the second week of the tournament.
There are normally six NJSIAA champions at the end of the given year in high-school baseball in New Jersey. When the LDWS ends on Friday night in Trenton, there will, for the first time in high-school baseball in New Jersey (sanctioned or unsanctioned by the NJSIAA) be just one champion.
Only one champion, but thanks to a tournament that salvaged a lost season for thousands of players in the state, there will be so many more winners.