Baseball – Manalapan Erupts Early, Advances to 1st Ever SCT Final
RED BANK - The Manalapan baseball team is seven years removed from winning its second of two straight NJSIAA Group IV championships - the last tournament of any kind the Braves won.
As accomplished as the Braves teams of that era were, they never won multiple tournaments in the same year. This year's Manalapan team is not as stocked with star power but after another hard-nosed effort on Thursday, the Braves have a chance to make some program history.
Sophomore Joe Mazza pitched into the fifth inning of Thursday's Shore Conference Tournament semifinal against seventh-seeded Wall and helped his cause with a three-run triple in the top of the first to help lead the sixth-seeded Braves past the Crimson Knights, 5-3, and into the SCT championship game for the first time in program history.
"It's a credit to the kids," Manalapan coach Brian Boyce said of his team playing in two championship games in three days. "We have talked about all year how this team is a unique team. It's about who is next in line. We are not sitting on any superstars - it's always about who is going to be the next guy to make the big play or come up with the big hit. The guys we have flourish in that role."
Manalapan - the No. 3 team in the latest Shore Sports Network Top 10 - will play in Sunday night's SCT final at FirstEnergy Park against the winner of Friday's game between Red Bank Catholic and Manasquan - originally scheduled for Thursday night but postponed because of anticipated storms in the Red Bank area Thursday night.
Before playing in the SCT final, Manalapan will go for its first Central Jersey Group IV championship since 2012 on Friday, when the Braves play host to Old Bridge in the sectional final. Manalapan won the Monmouth County Tournament title in 2009 and Group IV titles in both 2011 and 2012, but this year's team could make space of its own in program lore by winning on Friday and turning around for another championship win on Sunday.
"Either we're going to carry the momentum over to the next game or we're going to have a letdown," Boyce said. "Today, we carried it over for the first inning and after getting the five runs, we had our letdown. But Mazza battled, Serrano came in and did the job and we made enough plays behind them."
To get to Sunday, the Braves broke out their bats early in support of Mazza, with the sophomore left-hander contributing to the cause. Manalapan exploded for five runs in the top of the first off Wall starter Ryan Napolitano, who suffered his first loss of the season on the mound. Back-to-back singles by senior Billy Watters and Tommy Guidice loaded the bases and after Napolitano got a strikeout for the first out, junior Nick DiPietrantonio ripped an RBI single to left to make it 1-0.
Mazza stepped into the box next and smoked a line drive inside the right-field line and into the corner to clear the bases, giving the Braves an early 4-0 edge. Senior Matt Panzica made it 5-0 with a two-out RBI double down the right-field line.
After laboring through the five-run, 38-pitch first inning Napolitano settled in and tossed four consecutive shutout frames and completed the fifth inning with 105 pitches before turning the ball over the senior classmate Grant Shulman for a scoreless sixth.
Wall - ranked No. 2 in the SSN Top 10 - chipped away at Manalapan's lead with RBI ground outs by senior Tanner Powers in both the second and fourth innings. The Crimson Knights cut it to 5-3 when Shulman beat out an infield single with one out as senior Johnny Volpe crossed the plate with Wall's third run.
The Crimson Knights started the top of the seventh against Manalapan junior reliever Hunter Serrano with the top of the order and Serrano began the seventh with a strikeout to set the tone. He then walked junior Teddy Sharkey on four pitches but bounced back to get fly outs by Shulman and sophomore Jay Bant to end the game.
Serrano allowed two hits and a walk over 2 2/3 scoreless frames to nail down his third save of the season and second of the tournament. The senior right-hander also saved a 3-2 win over Christian Brothers Academy in the SCT quarterfinals on May 22.
Like Manalapan, Wall is also gearing up for a sectional final on Friday. The Crimson Knights will host Northern Burlington as they seek their first sectional title since 2008.
With Napolitano exceeding 100 pitches on Thursday and ace Trey Dombroski unavailable after throwing 90 on Tuesday against Hamilton West, the Knights will turn to Sharkey to pitch them to the championship, with Powers and Shulman available out of the bullpen.
On the other side, Manalapan earned an extra championship shot but with the opportunity comes a strain on the pitching staff. In throwing 76 pitches on Thursday, Mazza is ineligible to pitch until Monday. Senior Aaron Ayers - the team leader in ERA at 0.98 - is also ineligible until Monday after throwing 94 pitches in Wednesday's 1-0 sectional semifinal win over Hunterdon Central.
Senior left-hander Ben Levine will get the ball against Old Bridge on Friday and recent box scores indicate senior and starting shortstop Jake Pellecchia will be the first option in relief. If both Levine and Pellecchia were to exceed 50 pitches on Friday, neither would be an option on Sunday in the SCT final and Manalapan would be without Ayers, Mazza, Levine and Pellecchia for the championship game.
"I think sometimes, you get so caught up in winning and losing and forget to just go out and play," Boyce said. "We were winning every game for a while, then we had some losses and after a while, we said, 'Guys, forget the wins and losses. Just go out and play the game like you know how.' That's how we have been going about it."
While the next four days - the Group IV semifinal is scheduled for Monday - could become a scramble for Boyce and his coaching staff, it is a situation any coach in the Shore Conference would gladly accept. After starting the season 15-0, Manalapan also faced a stretch in which it played in nine of 10 days and slipped to 16-4. Enduring that struggle during the first days of May is now supplying these Braves with some lessons that they hope will yield a pair of championships by the end of the weekend and perhaps even a Group IV title by June 8.
"I think we got into a situation in the middle of the year where our pitchers needed some rest," Boyce said. "We regrouped after that one stretch, Ayers came out and threw a big game against Howell and it kind of took off from there. I think the kids are energized and I think tomorrow we'll play well."
Manalapan 5, Wall 3
|Ryan Napolitano (L, 6-1)||5||7||5||5||3||5||105|
|Joe Mazza (W, 4-2)||4.1||4||3||3||3||3||76|
|Hunter Serrano (SV, 3)||2.2||2||0||0||1||2||47|
|Grant Shulman||2-4, RBI|
|Sean Nocera||1-2, 2 R|
|Dylan Richey||1-2, SB|
|Johnny Volpe||1-4, 2B, R|
|Tanner Powers||0-3, 2 RBI|
|Joe Mazza||1-2, 3B, R, 3 RBI|
|Matt Panzica||1-2, 2B, RBI|
|Nick DiPietrantonio||1-3, R, RBI|
|Tommy Guidice||2-3, R|
|Ben Levine||1-3, 2B|
|Billy Watters||1-4, R|