Baseball – Leach, Brick Memorial Coast Into Ocean County Tournament Final
BRICK TWP. - Toms River South's transformation from a floundering, faltering former powerhouse to an upstart team with a chance to make a Cinderella run to an Ocean County Tournament baseball championship began with a home win over Brick Memorial - the start of a stretch in which the Indians went 10-3 leading into Saturday's Ocean County semifinals.
Just as Toms River South's run began against Brick Memorial, it also ended at the hands of the Mustangs.
Sophomore Brady Leach pitched a 64-pitch, five-hit shutout and Brick Memorial - the No. 4 seed in the OCT - handed ninth-seeded Toms River South a 6-0 loss to advance to the Ocean County final for the first time since 2013, where they will meet second-seeded Central Regional on Wednesday.
"I got a text this morning telling me I'm starting and it fired me up," Leach said. "I was ready. My mentality was set and I was thinking about one thing and one thing only and that was to win this game. I just had to pitch my heart out, keep them off-balance, pitch to contact and if my defense makes the plays, then that's it."
Leach struck out three, walked one, went to a three-ball count only twice in the game and completed four of the seven innings in nine pitches or fewer, with a high of 14 pitches in the top of the second.
"I really encouraged him to just pound the strike zone and let them put it in play, have the guys behind him make plays for him," senior shortstop and Mustangs No. 1 pitcher Cole Manfro, who was available to throw 82 pitches on Saturday said. "That will keep his pitch count down and make it easier for him. We were all ready in the field for balls coming our way."
"I don't care what team it is, I attack fastballs all the time," Leach said. "Until they prove to me they can hit it, I attack with it and once they do, I keep them off-balance with my off-speed with the slider, curveball and the changeup a few times to keep them honest."
Leach also gave himself a 1-0 lead when he hit a first-inning sacrifice fly to score senior Reese Hackett, who led off the game with a double.
Brick Memorial added three in the third, with sophomore catcher Joey Nolan picking up two RBI on a single and courtesy runner Aidan Patella stealing home on the back end of a double-steal for a 4-0 lead.
The Mustangs capped the scoring in the fourth with an RBI ground out by Joe Gioia and a sacrifice fly by Manfro.
Junior right fielder Ryan Turner helped Leach preserve the shutout with two outfield assists - one to cut a run down at the plate to end the top of the fifth and the other to catch Toms River South centerfielder Ty Madeo trying to stretch a single into a double in the sixth.
Turner has been on a tear at the plate during the latter part of the season - he is batting .520 (13-for-25) with two doubles, a triple, three home runs and 21 RBI in his last 10 games - and while he went 0-for-3 at the plate, his throwing arm in right took at least one off the board and potentially two.
Hackett reached base in all four of his plate appearances, finishing 2-for-3 with a double and two runs scored. Manfro was 1-for-3 with a run and an RBI, Nolan was 1-for-2 with two RBI, Max Cala was 1-for-3 with a run and Anthony Martino finished 1-for-2 with a walk and a stolen base for Brick Memorial.
Hackett appeared to injure his ankle when he stepped awkwardly on first base but managed to remain in the game and take another at-bat, which ended in a walk.
"It starts us off strong having those two guys at the top," Leach said of Hackett and Manfro, Brick Memorial's No. 1 and 2 hitters. "We have a really solid lineup one-through-nine and those two are really stable at the top of the order. Those guys get on and the guys behind them just have find a way to get them in, whether it's a base hit or a sac fly."
Toms River South starting pitcher Joe Schifilliti pitched the first 3 1/3 innings and was charged with all six runs - five of them earned. Schifilliti also finished 2-for-3 at the plate to lead the offense. A.J. Pierson pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings of relief for Toms River South.
The last time these two teams met, Toms River South was 2-8 and headed for, perhaps, the worst season in the storied career of head coach Ken Frank. Then, the Indians beat Brick Memorial, 6-1, to begin a stretch in which they went 10-4 to close the season, including 8-2 in their final 10 games to get to 12-12 at season's end. Among those 12 wins was the 900th of Frank's career and his current total of 906 remains the standard in the history of high school baseball in New Jersey.
As for Brick Memorial, the Mustangs will go for the Al Kunzman Ocean County Tournament trophy Wednesday against a team for whom this tournament would seem to center around. Kunzman is the former coach at Central Regional, and the second-seeded Golden Eagles will likely start the nephew of the greatest pitcher to ever come out of Central, or the Shore in general. Junior Cam Leiter - the nephew of Al and son of current Central pitching coach Kurt Leiter - will be eligible to start the game on Wednesday.
The Mustangs, for their part, are fine with conceding the fanfare to Central. They have relished being overlooked since the beginning of the season, when they opened with just one starter from 2019 on the roster in senior outfielder Max Cala, who missed most of the season due to injury before returning to the batting order on May 25. They also did not qualify for the Shore Conference Tournament, so finishing the season on a high note is an exciting proposition for the players.
"This is huge for us, because coming into the season, we weren't really looked upon as one of the better teams in the Shore or A South," Manfro said. "Our goal this year was to try and dominate as much as we could. Coming into the Ocean County after being knocked out in the state tournament, we are just trying to take it home."
Brick Memorial will also have its ace on the mound Wednesday, with Manfro fully rested after Leach's performance kept him off the mound on Saturday. Manfro said he originally expected to start on Saturday but the last-minute change was to have him ready to close the game if needed, which was not.
"I was going to be on an 82-pitch limit, so that got me thinking it would be better if we just let Brady go and if I need to come in, then I come in," Manfro said. "Then, if he could get through the game like he did, it would be even better because now, I have not limit going into Wednesday at Central."
During his senior season, Manfro is 5-4 with a 1.85 ERA in 53 innings with 52 strikeouts against 18 walks and 44 hits allowed. He started the season losing his first three games to Ranney, Toms River North and Egg Harbor, but has since gone 5-1 with a 0.72 ERA over his last six starts, with the lone loss coming against Jackson Memorial ace Zach Crotchfelt in the opening round of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV Tournament.
"I'm planning to just compete and pound the strike zone," Manfro said. "I'm going to go right after people and not try to work around. I'm going to do my thing, make my pitches and have the guys behind me make their plays.
"Batting-wise, I think we should be able to hold our own. We did pretty well against (Jackson Memorial right-hander) Matt Potok - we had nine hits against him - and Crotchfelt is Crotchfelt but we still put up a run. Leiter is obviously talented, but I think we'll be ready."