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MIDDLETOWN -- Zach Hampton was a freshman starter on Middletown North's 2022 NJSIAA Group III championship team, but he had not pitched a state tournament game until coming in to protect a one-run lead in the Lions' 2023 NJSIAA Tournament opener on Monday.

Dylan Briggs was also a starter as a sophomore in 2022, playing rightfield and hitting near the bottom of the order. In this year's lineup, he is hitting in the middle of the order and finding himself up in key RBI situations like the one he was in Thursday in the Central Jersey Group III quarterfinals against sixth-seeded Allentown.

Players like Hampton and Briggs are playing more integral roles in 2023 and, at least to this point, the Lions look every bit the championship contender that they were in 2022.

Middletown North celebrates the safe call at home plate that clinched Thursday's win over Allentown. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Middletown North celebrates the safe call at home plate that clinched Thursday's win over Allentown. (Photo: Tom Smith |

Hampton pitched six solid innings Thursday and Briggs delivered the game-winning RBI single in the bottom of the seventh inning as Middletown North -- seeded No. 3 in the Central Group III section -- walked off with a 4-3 win over Allentown.

"It's so much fun being back in these games," said Middletown North senior shortstop Ryan Frontera, who scored the winning run with a crafty slide into home plate. "We have a close group, so it's fun to come to the field every day. We just want to keep it going."

With Middletown North trailing, 3-2, and down to its last two outs, catcher Mike Hallard started the winning rally with a one-out walk single into left field. Senior shortstop Ryan Frontera followed with a single through the middle, which chased Hallard to third with one out. Allentown contended that Hallard missed second base, but the appeal was unsuccessful.

R.J. Kernan then tied the game with a groundball to second base that turned into an out at first base, but scored Hallard and advanced Frontera to second. Allentown then opted to intentionally walk Hampton with first base open to face Briggs.

With the count 1-0, Briggs hit a solid groundball back through the box and it cleared the middle infielders. Centerfielder Jack Sweeney made a strong throw to the plate in the air, but Frontera wisely slid to the back of the plate and tapped it with his right hand before catcher Alex Bischoff could apply the tag.

"I knew it was going to be a close play," Frontera said. "I saw (Bischoff) go out to get the throw, so I knew I had to slide kind of around the plate. I slid around the plate and just tapped it with my hand real quick before he tagged me. I definitely got my hand in there. The umpire was in great position and I could see that he was looking right at it."

Ryan Frontera gets his right hand on the plate ahead of the tag by Allentown catcher Alex Bischoff. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Ryan Frontera gets his right hand on the plate ahead of the tag by Allentown catcher Alex Bischoff. (Photo: Tom Smith |

Alipio Figueroa pitched a scoreless seventh inning to earn the win in relief of Hampton, who allowed three runs on five hits and two walks on 88 pitches without striking out a batter.

"I worked mostly with my fastball today," Hampton said. "My offspeed wasn't really there like I wanted it to be, so I just went after their lineup and trusted my guys to back me up in the field and with their bats and they came through."

Middletown North erased a one-run deficit earlier in the game as well, with Frontera also figuring prominently in that rally in the bottom of the fifth inning. Jason Quardt singled, advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Gabe Ahlemeyer and scored on an RBI single by Ian McGoldrick to pull the Lions even, 1-1.

With McGoldrick reaching second base on the throw home following his single, Frontera followed with a single through the right side to plate McGoldrick with the go-ahead run.

Allentown answered right back in the top of the sixth, with Sweeney launching a leadoff home run to leftfield. Slade Herrill then singled, advanced on a sacrifice bunt followed by a groundout to second, then scored on a two-out RBI single by Bryce Berrien to give Allentown a 3-2 lead.

Hallard, Frontera and Kernan each finished 2-for-4, with Hallard doubling earlier in the game. Quardt also went 2-for-3 for Middletown North.

Middletown North sophomore Zach Hampton. (Photo: Tom Smith |
Middletown North sophomore Zach Hampton. (Photo: Tom Smith |

Frontera is the only player who hit in the top five of last year's state-championship batting order back this season, but Hampton, Briggs, Quardt and second baseman Colby McMahon are all returning starters and Kernan would have been a prominent hitter in last year's championship run had he not been out with a knee injury.

"It makes handling the pressure easier for us," Frontera said of the team's playoff experience. "We're used to it: being in those pressure situations and trusting the next guy up."

Hampton was the only freshman starter on last year's team and several of his classmates have stepped up as first-year sophomore starters -- namely Hallard, McGoldrick and opening-round starting pitcher and outfielder Gabe Ahlemeyer.

After pulling off one-run wins in each of the first two rounds, Middletown North will host crosstown rival Middletown South Tuesday in the sectional semifinals. The two rivals split the regular-season series in Shore Conference Class A North play and last met in the NJSIAA Tournament in 2015, when Middletown South beat the Lions in the first round of the Central Group III Playoffs.

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