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LAKEWOOD - Just two months ago, the players on the Howell baseball team weren't sure they would ever play another baseball game together, let alone win three of them to advance to the South Region round-of-16 in the Last Dance World Series, presented by RWJBarnabas Health.

That did not make the ending to Tuesday's game against Kingsway any easier to swallow, but it at least put it into perspective.

With a 3-0 lead and five outs from the quarterfinal round, the Blue and Grey from Howell left the door open and Kingsway's Dragons Baseball Club kicked it in, scoring four runs over the final two innings to pull out a 4-3 win and send Howell home with a bitter defeat to end an otherwise uplifting week of baseball.

Howell junior Vin Impresa cruised through five innings and from the last out of the first inning until the second batter of the sixth, the right-hander retired 14 straight batters. Impresa finished with two earned runs allowed on three hits over six-plus innings with nine strikeouts and one walk.

"There were over 200 teams in this tournament and we made it to the last 32," Impresa said. "We weren't the number-one seed in our pool and I don't think most people expected us to be here. So it means a lot. We are all just so proud of each other to be out here and so grateful we had a chance to play with each other one more time."

The one walk Impresa issued led off the top of the seventh inning and ended his outing with Howell still lead, 3-1. Junior Chris Ellison took over on the mound and designated hitter Kevin Pandorf greeted him with a long RBI triple to right-centerfield on a 2-2 count.

With the tying run on third for Kingsway, Ellison struck out the next batter for the first out and the Blue and Grey dugout opted to walk pinch-hitter Tom Goldberg, hitting in the No. 8 spot.

The Dragons then pushed two winning buttons, sending up another pinch-hitter in the No. 9 spot and calling for the hit-and-run. Connor Griscom rewarded the decision by shooting an RBI single through the right side to tie the game and set Kingsway up with runners on first and third with one out - second and third after Griscom stole second uncontested.

Howell again changed pitchers, calling on Jake Lenardo - who closed last Wednesday's win over St. John Vianney's RBI Baseball and was the winning pitcher in Thursday's win over Neptune. Lenardo uncorked a wild pitch to allow the go-ahead run to score and left the game with apparent discomfort in his left shoulder after four pitches.

Senior Max Friedeman came on to finish the at-bat with a strikeout and induced an inning-ending groundout to limit the damage and keep Howell within one run heading into the bottom of the seventh.

Kingsway's rally began in the top of the sixth, when centerfielder Ben Maiers doubled to the left-center gap with one out to end Impresa's stretch of 14 straight retired. Maiers then scored when catcher Chris Acampora threw high on a pickoff throw down to second base and shortstop Nick Guerrino made an off-balance throw into the third-base dugout to allow Maiers to score. Ethan Burbage singled with two out to make the run charged to Impresa an earned run.

"Whenever you have a shutout in the sixth inning, you hate to see a run score because your goal is to keep them to nothing," Impresa said. "I had a lot of confidence in my bullpen pitchers to get in there and finish what I started. It didn't work out but I'm not going to be mad at my teammates. I'd trust them again."

Despite the deflating sixth and seventh innings in the field, Howell mounted a challenge in the bottom of the seventh against University of North Carolina commit Justin Szestowicki, who came on in the seventh to save the game.

Impresa worked a one-out walk, junior right fielder Antonio Gatti ripped a single to left and Szestowicki threw away a pickoff attempt to first to put runners on second and third with one out. Already behind in the count, 3-0, Szestowicki intentionally walked Ellison to load the bases.

Acampora laid off a well-place high fastball by Szestowicki on a 2-2 pitch but could not hold up on 3-2, striking out for the second out. Szestowicki then coaxed first baseman Jack Bearse into a game-ending pop-out to catcher Connor Ward in foul territory.

"I'm not going to lie: I was feeling pretty down after the top of the seventh," Impresa said. "Then we got a walk, a hit, another walk and we gave ourselves a chance. We couldn't quite finish, but it was fun to see us go down fighting."

Ellison got the scoring started in the bottom of the fourth when he smashed a triple off the wall in left field and scored on a groundout to shortstop by Acampora. Howell added a second run in the inning when Guerrino smacked an RBI single into right field to score Bearse, who reached on a walk.

Howell's Blue and Grey made it to the second week of the tournament with strong pitching throughout the four games, with the final inning proving to be the first time the staff blinked. Friedeman and sophomore Nick Gomes combined on a one-hitter in a 2-0 win over Monmouth Regional in the opener; Impresa, A.J. Furlong and Lenardo combined to handle the pitching in a 7-3 win over RBI Baseball; and Ellison and Lenardo combined to keep Neptune down in a 3-1 win to advance to the second week of action.

Three of those key pitchers - Impresa, Ellison and Gomes - are due back in 2021, but the Rebels will mist contributions from a senior group that includes centerfielder and leadoff hitter Tommy Talbot (1-for-4 on Tuesday), Acampora, Bearse and second baseman Brandon Troop (2-for-3 with a double Tuesday), as well as Friedman and Lenardo in the rotation.

"We've all been saying since we were kids that this was going to be our best year as a team," Impresa said. "We were going to have the most fun this year, with some of my best friends being seniors and the other juniors with me. We have been through a lot, like a lot of teams - we didn't think it was going to happen at first but having this Last Dance to play in has been great. Having all the fans here and getting to play with my friends has been a great experience."

 

Box Score

Dragons Baseball 4, Blue and Grey 3

1234567RHE
Dragons (4-0)0002100372
Blue & Grey (3-1)0000013452

 

Pitching

DragonsIPHRERBBSOPC
Landon Edwards32112468
Tyler Szilagyi23211041
T.J. Snyder0.21000215
Chris Evans (W)0.1000013
Justin Szestowicki (Sv)11002121
Blue & GreyIPHRERBBSOPC
Vin Impresa63221988
Chris Ellison0.12221114
Jake Lenardo0.0000004
Max Friedeman0.2000017

 

Top Hitters

DragonsGame Stats
Kevin Pandorf1-3, 3B, RBI
Connor Griscom1-1, RBI
Ben Maiers1-4, 2B, R
Blue & GreyGame Stats
Chris Ellison1-2, 3B, 2 BB, R
Brandon Troop2-3, 2B
Nick Guerrino1-3, RBI, SB