MARLBORO - Saturday's NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV between No. 10 seed Colts Neck and No. 2 Manalapan was moved from Manalapan High School to Marlboro High School because of field conditions and by the end of Saturday's showdown between the two Shore Conference Class A North rivals, the Braves were glad they were not at their home field.

Representing the tying run with two out in the top of the seventh inning, Colts Neck right fielder Reece Horneck lofted a long fly ball to right that came up just a couple feet short of the right-field fence and Manalapan hung on to beat the Cougars, 6-3, to advance to the sectional semifinals Tuesday. The Braves will host No. 3 Hunterdon Central.

Manalapan's temporary fences in the outfield of its home park might not have been able to hold Horneck's fly ball, something coach Brian Boyce was quick to acknowledge and pitcher E.J. Melendez thought as the ball landed in the glove of Braves right fielder Anthony Naylor for the final out.

Manalapan junior Giovanni Ciaccio went 2-for-4 with four RBI on Saturday vs. Colts Neck. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Manalapan junior Giovanni Ciaccio went 2-for-4 with four RBI on Saturday vs. Colts Neck. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"I was praying it wasn't out," Melendez said. "When he made the play, I was so happy. I was trying to pitch him inside and maybe try to get him to hook it foul. He kept it fair and, fortunately, it wasn't out."

"It's a good thing the game got moved here," Boyce said. "Things might have turned out a little differently. Fortunately, it's an out and Melendez shut the door, which he deserved. He came in and did a nice job to keep them (Colts Neck) down."

Although the final out made for a nervous few seconds, Melendez stabilized the game for Manalapan with his four innings of scoreless relief. He took over for starter JonMichael Sabatino to start the top of the fourth inning with Manalapan ahead 5-3 and held the Cougars to two hits and two walks over the final four innings while striking out two and throwing 70 pitches.

"J.M. was a little up in the zone earlier and he fell behind some hitters, which is uncharacteristic of him," Boyce said of Sabatino. "We told E.J. he needed to be ready to pitch at some point today. We thought we'd get a little deeper into the game, but in a tournament game, you might make a move a little quicker than you normally would, which is what we did today."

"I fell behind a couple guys, but for the most part, I was trying to pitch to contact and give our defense a chance to make plays," Melendez said. "They've been doing a good job of making all the plays, especially lately."

Melendez came on to pitch with a two-run lead thanks to a productive Manalapan offense, particularly in the first two innings. Junior Giovanni Ciaccio and senior Steven Bullen ripped RBI doubles on consecutive pitches in the bottom of the first to open the scoring after second baseman Vinny Lanza reached on a strikeout pitch that went to the backstop and took second on a throwing error.

Ciaccio later delivered two more run-scoring hits, including a two-run double to left-centerfield in the bottom of the second inning. He also laced an RBI single to center in the bottom of the fourth to chase home first baseman Dan DeBlasio, who singled and stole second in the inning.

"The last few games, we've been a little long with our swings," Ciaccio said. "Today, I think guys did a good job of staying short, especially early in the game."

Prior to Ciaccio's two-run double in the second, Manalapan took regained the lead for good on an RBI double by catcher Joe Pellecchia that one-hopped the fence in left field.

Ciacco recorded hits in each of his first three at-bats and finished 3-for-4 with two doubles, a run scored and four RBI to lead the Braves offense. Both of his doubles came with two strikes in the count - one on 2-2 and the other on 3-2.

"His average is in the .330 to .340 range this year, but he's hit into some hard-luck outs," Boyce said of Ciaccio. "He hits the ball hard and he sprays it to different fields. He hits with two strikes. He's one of our best hitters, if not our best hitter."

The junior center fielder began the season as the team's leadoff hitter but has since moved to the No. 3 spot in the batting order, trading places with DeBlasio. He hit a go-ahead three-run home run in the fifth inning of his team's Shore Conference Tournament first-round win over Marlboro back on May 17 and topped that showing on Saturday.

"I love hitting third," Ciaccio said. "I love getting to hit in big spots and driving people in."

Colts Neck answered Manalapan's two first-inning runs with two of its own in the top of the second. Horneck led off the inning with a single and stole second while both Dan Schulte and Adrian Jimenez drew one-out walks to load the bases.

Sabatino induced a pop-out for the second out of the inning, but Colts Neck second baseman Nick Straub came through with a two-out, two-run single to left-center on a 2-2 count to tie the game.

Colts Neck trimmed the Manalapan lead to 5-3 in the third on back-to-back doubles by Jon Weitzman and starting pitcher Anthony Galason. Weitzman also hit a ball that likely would have cleared the fence at Manalapan, but his well-struck line drive hit the very top of the fence in left and bounced back onto the field of play. As it turned out, the unfortunate break did not cost Colts Neck because Galason followed with a long double to deep right-center.

The Cougars pushed a runner to second base in every inning expect the sixth, during which Melendez retired the bottom of the Colts Neck lineup in order. In the seventh, shortstop Brendan Clarke worked an eight-pitch walk with one out, stole second and went to third on a single by Weitzman.

Melendez got Galason to ground out to third base on a first-pitch curveball and after falling behind 3-1 to Horneck, got away with a fastball on the inner half that Horneck just missed hitting out to tie the game.

Manalapan is one win from reaching a sectional final for the first time since winning its second straight Group IV championship in 2012. The Braves have had an up-and-down season that included an 11-game winning streak that was immediately followed by a five-game losing streak. Heading into Tuesday, however, they are 17-9 with a chance to win a sectional championship.

"We have a lot of pitchers ready to go so we should be good in relief if we need it," Melendez said. "I like our chances."


Box Score

(2) Manalapan 6, (10) Colts Neck 3

Colts Neck (14-12)0210000362
Manalapan (17-9)230100X670



Anthony Galason (L, 1-4)24552354
Hunter Boag33112350
Dillon Pellecchia10000012
JonMichael Sabatino34333269
E.J. Melendez (W, 6-3)42002270


Top Hitters

Colts NeckGame Stats
Reece Horneck2-4, R, 2 SB
Jon Weitzman2-4, 2B, R
Anthony Galason1-4, 2B, RBI
Nick Straub1-4, 2 RBI
ManalapanGame Stats
Giovanni Ciaccio3-4, 2 2B, R, 4 RBI
Steven Bullen1-3, 2B, RBI
Joe Pellecchia1-3, 2B, RBI
Dan DeBlasio1-4, R, SB


More From Shore Sports Network