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With a team heavy on juniors, light on experience and seeded No. 12 in the South Jersey Group II section of the NJSIAA Tournament, Manchester was down to its last strike in what would have been a memorable run and something to build on heading into 2022.

Then, after two of his teammates extended Friday's sectional championship game at Delran by reaching with two out in the top of the seventh, junior second baseman Sean McAllister took a swing that transformed Manchester from upstart No. 12 seed to a sectional champion.

With Manchester trailing by a run and locked in a 2-2 count, McAllister belted a go-ahead, three-run home run to left field to catapult the Hawks into the lead and deliver them a 7-5 win over the second-seeded Bears, giving the program its first sectional championship since 2003.

"To be down to our last breath and to go from just trying to survive another pitch, to taking the lead on a home run and winning a championship is indescribable," Manchester coach Dave Beauchemin said. "We had an unbelievable crowd there. The whole community was there to support us and to experience that moment with the team and the community was a moment these guys will never forget. I know I won't."

"I had two strikes, so I was just trying to put the ball hard in play to try to get the run in," McAllister said. "I got a good pitch and I put a good swing on it and it happened to go out.

"It was an unbelievable feeling. Emotions were running high all game and that was another level. We had so many people there supporting us and we're just really proud to be bringing a championship back to the school."

Photo provided by Manchester Baseball.

Starting pitcher Kris Giangreco hit a big two-run double to stretch Delran's lead to 5-2 in the bottom of the fourth and it was at that point Manchester began to claw back. Junior Mike Damato had the first big swing of the comeback when he ripped an RBI double down the right-field line to trim the deficit to 5-3 in the top of the fifth.

McAllister then came through in the fifth with his first big at-bat, which came in the form of a sacrifice fly to cut Delran's lead to 5-4.

"We never had a doubt we were going to win," McAllister said. "We have been playing together since we were young and we have felt that way all year. It took us some time to come together as a team and once we made it to the state tournament, we felt like we could beat anybody. The parents made shirts that said, 'Why not us?' and that's how we felt."

Both sides held firm on the mound, with Manchester senior Rich Coufal coming on in place of sophomore starter Joe Sclama to keep the deficit at one after the Hawks came up empty in the top of the sixth.

Delran loaded the bases with no one out, with the Hawks opting to intentionally walk the bases loaded to set up a force play. Coufal made the plan pay off when he induced a one-two-three double-play for the first two outs of the innings. Beauchemin again chose to walk the bases loaded to set up forces at every base, but this time, Coufal made it easier on his fielder's with a strikeout to end the sixth-inning threat.

"That's what Richie does - he finds ways to get outs," Beauchemin said. "He has had some tough moments on the mound this year, but he has also had so many really big moments for us. He doesn't cave to the pressure, which is why he is a guy you want out there in a tough spot like that. We intentionally walked those two hitters because we knew he could handle the bases being loaded and that turned out to be huge."

That set the stage for McAllister, who needed the two hitters ahead of him to reach in order to get a chance. With two out in the inning, Damato ripped a single that ate up the shortstop, followed by a hard-hit ball from junior Blake Warren to extend the game for McAllister. The junior second baseman crushed a 2-2 pitch to left field that cleared the fence that set off a celebration that rivaled most walk-off celebrations.

"It had that sound," Beauchemin said. "There was no doubt that thing was gone. That was one of the purest-sounding swings I have heard in a long time."

"I was definitely caught up in the moment," McAllister said. "I was basically sprinting around the bases. I got to coach Beau and he hit my hand pretty hard and I hit his hard. Then I saw the whole team waiting for me at home plate. It was a great moment, the best moment of my life."

The Hawks still had to record the final three outs and after a walk to start the inning, Beauchemin called on sophomore Frank Kern and his 1 1/3 innings of varsity mound experience to close the game. Even though he spent most of the season as the No. 1 pitcher at the jayvee level, Kern was ready for the big-time on Friday. He came on to retire all three batters he faced and ended the threat with a strikeout to clinch the championship.

Manchester opened this season without much varsity experience, particularly on the mound. Senior first baseman Chris Grille, who picked the ball out of the dirt to complete the big sixth-inning double play, is the only senior in the lineup who started back in 2019 while junior shortstop Blake Warren, who drove in the first run of the game with an RBI double, started for most of his freshman season.

Warren, McAllister and Damato, though, are part of a talented junior class that has taken the reins of the program and led it to heights not seen in their lifetimes. That group also includes right fielder and Old Dominion commit Logan Duffy, who singled and scored the first run of Friday's game on Warren's double, and Brandon Sogness, who singled home a run to pull Manchester within 3-2 in the top of the fourth.

The first sign that this could be a transformational group for Manchester came in the Shore Conference Tournament, when the Hawks upset No. 10 seed Donovan Catholic and No. 7 Freehold Township to reach the SCT quarterfinals as a No. 23 seed. Manchester also had No. 1 seed Manalapan on the ropes in the quarterfinals until the Braves rallied to win in the bottom of the seventh inning.

"From the first day of practice, I was a believer in this group," Beauchemin said. "We didn't have a lot of experience, especially on the mound, but I knew these guys had the talent and they just needed to get that belief in themselves and little by little, guys started to get that belief. And when more and more guys get that, it makes you a deeper team and I think we're getting deeper every week with the way guys keep stepping up."

Friday's win advances Manchester to the Group II semifinal and, much to Manchester's liking, it will again be a road game. The Hawks will travel to play Central Jersey Group II champion Voorhees - 9-2 winners over Raritan on Friday - with a trip to the Group II championship game on the line. Damato, who has been the Hawks' top pitcher this season, will be get the ball for Manchester.

"I think the boys are really excited right now and we'll celebrate this one tonight," McAllister said. "Once tomorrow gets here and Sunday, especially, we'll start thinking about Sunday because we want to keep going."

 

Box Score

Manchester 7, Delran 5

 1234567RHE
Manchester (13-10)10012037100
Delran (18-6)1202000560

Pitching

ManchesterIPHRERBBSOPC
Joe Sclama55554597
Rich Coufal (W, 2-3)11001023
Logan Duffy0000105
Frank Kern (SV, 2)10000212
DelranIPHRERBBSOPC
Kris Giangreco (L, 3-4)6.2107628105
Jake Bauman0.1000001

Top Hitters

ManchesterGame Stats
Sean McAllister2-3, HR, 2B, R, 4 RBI
Mike Damato2-4, 2B, RBI
Blake Warren2-4, 2B, R, RBI
Brandon Sogness2-2, BB, RBI
Keith Fallon1-3, R
Logan Duffy1-3, BB, R
DelranGame Stats
Anthony McFadden3-3, 2B, BB, 2 R
Kris Giangreco1-2, 2B, 3 RBI