MANALAPAN - Senior Ben Levine entered Friday's Central Jersey Group IV championship game with experience pitching in the sectional final round and pitched with the poise of a staff leader who had been there before.

There was just one problem as he walked back to the mound for his sixth inning of work Friday against Old Bridge: his Manalapan team was still losing and had to score against a counterpart who rarely gives up a run.

With the pressure mounting and the path to victory narrowing, the Braves did what they have been telling each other to do all year: they found a way.

Facing a pitcher in senior right-hander and St. John's commit Sonny Fauci who had allowed three earned runs all season long, Manalapan scored three runs on three straight two-out singles in the bottom of the sixth to take the lead and Levine closed the door in the seventh to deliver the Braves a Central Group IV championship, 3-2.

Photo by Matt Manley
Photo by Matt Manley

"The thing that Coach (Brian) Boyce has been saying to us all year is 'Find a way,'" said junior third baseman Nick DiPietrantonio, who had the game-tying RBI single with two out in the sixth. "That's the only thing that's going through our heads in that situation. We just had to find a way to get the runs across and win the game."

Manalapan is the Central Jersey Group IV champion for the first time since 2012, when the Braves won the second of back-to-back overall Group IV championships. Their march toward a third Group IV title in nine years continues Monday at Monmouth University against South Jersey champion Eastern.

"The 2011 team was loaded with talent, the 2012 team you had two or three guys really carry the load game-in and game-out," Boyce said, comparing his sectional championship teams. "This is a special team. It's the epitome of a team. It really is a different guy every game for us."

Fauci entered the game 8-0 with a 0.35 ERA in 60 innings and was shutting the Braves out through five full innings while on the cusp of making it six. A batter's interference call led to Manalapan's first out and wiped off a stolen base by senior shortstop Jake Pellecchia. After a flyout to center by left fielder Tom Guidice, Fauci was one out away from forcing the game to the seventh inning with Old Bridge leading 1-0.

"It's tough to be in a situation like that, but we still had at-bats left so I had to focus on what I had to do," Levine said. "I had to make pitches on the mound and focus on my at-bats."

Pellecchia finally got his stolen base and did so without a throw. With Levine at the plate and ahead in the count, 3-1, Old Bridge opted in intentionally pass the remainder of the at-bat and put Levine - the go-ahead run - on first.

That brought up DiPietrantonio - Manalapan's leader in doubles (9), home runs (3), RBI (30) and slugging percentage (.564). - with two out and speed on second in Pellecchia and first in courtesy runner Kyle Sciallo.

On the first pitch he saw from Fauci in the sixth, DiPietrantonio scalded a line drive through the right side of the infield to score Pellecchia, who dove head-first into home plate with the tying run just before the tag.

"I was just happy to get a shot to help the team win," DiPietrantonio said. "I was on his fastball in the first at-bat, I sat on the first pitch and I was just glad I got a shot to do it."

DiPietrantonio has had a journey of highs and lows to get to the gaudy numbers and, ultimately, one of the biggest hits of the season for Manalapan. He hit safely in 11 of Manalapan's first 12 games, during which he hit .529 with six doubles, a triple, a home run and 16 RBI.

"When he is patient at the plate, when he lets the ball travel, that's when he's at his best," Boyce said of DiPietrantonio. "He hits the ball hard to right-center. Sometimes he gets overanxious but when he can stay back and be patient, he is one of the better hitters in the Shore."

Over the next eight games, however, DiPietrantonio went just 2-for-25 (.080) with one double and two RBI. Over the last 11 games, the junior third baseman has stabilized, hitting .311 with two doubles, a triple and a pair of home runs to go with 12 RBI. Those numbers would be even better were it not for a spectacular diving catch by Old Bridge center fielder Elliot Hayward in the second inning to rob DiPietrantonio of extra-bases and likely prevent a run from scoring.

"In that situation, in this type of game, I was going back to my approach in the beginning of the season: just try to get barrels," DiPietrantonio said of his last at-bat. "Wherever the ball's pitched - if he is going hard outside, I'm going that way.

"I was really high at the beginning of the season and in that slump I got really low - I was pulling off the ball a little bit and pressing a lot. I just tried to calm down and put the bat on the ball."

Sciallo took third on DiPietrantonio's single and trotted home with the go-ahead run on an RBI single by sophomore Joe Mazza. Pinch-runner Lou Marzo was running on the play and that opened up a space for Mazza to shoot the ball into right field on a line.

Mazza was also the hero in Manalapan's win over Wall in Thursday's Shore Conference Tournament semifinal game, in which the left-hander earned the win with 4 1/3 innings of work and laced a three-run triple in the first inning of the Braves' 5-1 win.

Senior Mike Kuver capped the rally with a check-swing dribbler up the third-base line that Fauci picked up as it was rolling along the line and threw to first too late to get Kuver. Marzo scored from third base on the play.

Levine returned to the mound now leading 3-1 with a chance to seal up Manalapan's first sectional championship in seven years, but had to fight off one last threat from a resilient Knights team.

Designated hitter Brandon Mark reached base for the third time in three trips with a single to leadoff the inning but Manalapan's defense erased him when second baseman Hunter Serrano caught shortstop John Cardile's line drive and fired to first base to double off Mark.

Down to its last out, Old Bridge fought on, beginning with a line-drive single to center by center fielder Elliot Hayward. Left fielder Dave Chiofalo followed with a single and after a wild pitch moved Hayward to third, Fauci singled to right-center to make it 3-2 and place the go-ahead and tying runs on first and second with two out.

"Ben is such a gamer that you would have had to gone out there with a police escort to take him out of the game," Boyce said. "I didn't think he was coming out at any point. We didn't have anyone warmed up. He was finishing it."

Manalapan senior Ben Levine. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Manalapan senior Ben Levine. (Photo by Matt Manley)

First baseman Matt Herbstman stepped in and lined the first pitch his saw into right field, but Mazza hardly had to move to squeeze the final out and set off the celebration.

The action-packed final two innings followed a first four dominated by the two starting pitchers. Fauci allowed four hits and one walk while striking out five over the first five innings but walked the leadoff man in the sixth to reveal the first sign of trouble. The batter's interference provided a temporary reprieve but the middle of Manalapan's order - DiPietrantonio at No. 5, Mazza No. 6 and Kuver No. 7 -  was lying in wait, ready to swing the momentum.

Manalapan mounted a threat in the third inning with a one-out single by Serrano and a hit-and-run with Pellecchia that put runners on the corners with one out. Fauci got a big strikeout for the second out and got his glove on a chopper by Guidice. The ball rolled slowly toward second baseman Chris Picariello but Cardile ranged from his shortstop position, cut in front of his double-play partner, bare-handed the ball and threw out Guidice from the seat of his pants. It was another dazzling defensive play that helped Fauci pitch a clean first-five innings.

Levine, meanwhile, cruised through four innings with three hits allowed, no walks and four strikeouts before hitting trouble in the fifth. Old Bridge loaded the bases with none out on a double by right fielder Matt Flores, a bunt single by catcher Andrew Deciglie and a hit-by-pitch. Kuver got his glove on Flores's double with a diving attempt that ultimately allowed Flores to go to second, while Levine dove for a popped-up bunt and missed it, allowing Deciglie to reach first. He then hit Mark on an 0-2 pitch to load the bases.

"In the bullpen, I knew my changeup wasn't that good," Levine said. "I don't think I threw it at all. It wasn't all working for me but against a good team and a good pitcher, you just have to scrap and battle to try to keep your team in it."

Manalapan brought its infield in and Levine got a ground ball, but Serrano elected to go to first on the slow chopper hit by Cardile, allowing Flores to score the game's first run. Levine shook off the run crossing the plate and struck out the next two batters to strand runners on second and third.

"Obviously, I was trying to get out of it with a zero," Levine said. "If I can, that's what I'm trying to do. Coach Boyce came out and said, 'Let's try and limit this and get out with as little damage as possible. We have done it all year.'"

Levine's performance fell short of dominant - he allowed one earned run on eight hits and a walk while striking out six - but it was exactly what Manalapan needed with its pitching staff thinned-out from Wednesday's win over Hunterdon Central and Thursday's over Wall.

It was also redemption of sorts for Levine, who was the losing pitcher in last year's 4-0 loss to Hunterdon Central in the Central Jersey Group IV final. Senior teammate Aaron Ayers put many of those demons to rest by pitching a two-hit shutout against Hunterdon Central on Wednesday and Levine took care of the rest by pitching the Braves to the sectional championship.

"This team has shown grit the entire season," DiPietrantonio said. "We have been finding a way all season and I think our heart showed at the end of the game. We wanted it and I think it showed by the way we finished the game."


Box Score

Manalapan 3, Old Bridge 2

Old Bridge (23-7)0000101282
Manalapan (24-7)000003X370


Sonny Fauci (L, 8-1)67333580
Ben Levine (W, 6-1)78221698

Top Hitters

Old BridgeStats
Sonny Fauci2-4, RBI
Matt Flores3-3, 2B, R
Brandon Mark2-2, HBP
Elliot Hayward1-4, R
Nick DiPietrantonio1-3, RBI
Joe Mazza1-3, RBI
Jake Pellecchia1-2, BB, R, SB
Mike Kuver1-3, RBI



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