Baseball – Middletown North Roars Into Second Week of Last Dance
Whether it was a normal high-school season or three games in the middle of July, the players on the 2020 Middletown North baseball team were ready to surprise everyone overlooking them.
That included the N.J. Last Dance World Series organizers who chose to seed the Lions fourth out of four teams in the Freehold Regional pool, as well as the publication that ranked their three opponents this past week among the 20 best in the Shore Conference but not the Lions.
Not only was Middletown North the surprise team of South Jersey during the first week of the Last Dance World Series, presented by RWJBarnabas Health; the Lions might have been the best team in the South.
With lopsided wins over teams from Freehold Township, Marlboro and Christian Brothers Academy, Middletown North stormed into the second week of play in the Last Dance Tournament with three pitchers coming off dominant performances and a host of hitters who proved to be locked-in from the first pitch of the tournament.
“Last year, our bats weren’t up to par with how we played in the field,” Rozinski said. “We played good teams close, but our bats just weren’t there. We came out this preseason and we knew teams were going to be sleeping on us so we were looking forward to getting back out on the field and proving ourselves.”
Senior Ryan Rozinski, junior Dan Frontera and junior Colin Dowlen combined to allow one earned run and struck out 23 over 14 innings and all three turned the game over to the relief staff with sizable leads. Rozinski struck out nine and allowed one unearned run over five innings and left with a 10-1 lead against Freehold Township’s Columbia Blue squad on Tuesday, Frontera fanned six and allowed one earned run over four innings before leaving with a 6-1 lead against Marlboro’s Blue and Gold, and Dowlen punched out eight over five innings and left with an 8-0 lead vs. CBA’s Lincroft Colts.
On top of their standout performances on the mound, all three starters were all big parts of the offensive machine that produced 29 runs in nine games with no fewer than nine runs in any of the games. Frontera and Dowlen each belted one of Middletown North’s three home runs in the 10-4 win over Columbia Blue, with Frontera’s grand slam breaking the game open. Junior catcher Andrew Lombardi also went deep in the opener on Tuesday.
“Our bats are alive this tournament,” Frontera said. “Talking to some friends, maybe everybody doesn’t think we’re the best hitting team out there but we’re sitting on fastballs, reacting to breaking balls and we’re squaring balls up and hitting some over fences. We were practicing as a group all quarantine, getting together and just getting swings in.”
Rozinski got in on the action Wednesday, when he went 2-for-4 with a two-run home run that put the Lions ahead, 6-1, in the fourth inning as part of a three-RBI day. Frontera went 1-for-4 on Wednesday on his day to pitch and came back with another big game at the plate at CBA on Thursday, going 3-for-4 with a triple, four RBI and three runs scored in a resounding 10-2 win over a Colts team that was among the South Jersey favorites and ranked No. 2 in the Shore Sports Network Top 20 during the preseason.
Dowlen was a force throughout the last week as well, capping his three-game stretch with a gem on the mound to go with a 2-for-4 day at the plate a double and an RBI vs. CBA. In Wednesday’s win over Marlboro, Dowlen was 3-for-4 with a double and two RBI.
As one of three seniors in Middletown North’s starting lineup, Rozinski took the ball in the Last Dance opener. The 6-foot-4 right-hander was the team’s No. 2 starter during its 7-16 campaign in 2019, as well as one of its top hitters. Despite their record, the Lions made strides with a young team over the course of last season and brought back every starter other than all-division mound ace Sean Gardiner.
“We knew were a step away last year,” Rozinski said. “We were younger than a lot of teams so coming into this year, it’s a shame it got taken away from us but we saw this tournament as an opportunity for us to show how improved we are as a team and for the seniors to get a chance to be a part of it.”
One of the reasons Middletown North was so well-prepared to replace Gardiner was because of Frontera’s return to form. The hard-throwing right-hander is 20 months removed from Tommy John surgery and after not pitching or playing his shortstop position at all in 2019, he returned to the mound Wednesday for his first start since his freshman season in 2018.
“I got two outings with my other team where I threw one or two innings, so this was my first real start since my freshman year,” said Frontera, who verbally committed to Rutgers following his freshman season and following his injury and a coaching change by the Scarlet Knights, he has since re-opened his recruitment and committed to Seton Hall. “(Wednesday) was all about trying to throw strikes, get through as many innings as I could within my pitch count and try to save some arms.”
During his first two innings, Frontera was overpowering, retiring six of the seven batters he faced with four strikeouts and allowing one runner to reach on an error. The next two innings were more of a grind, but he limited the damage to one run and ended each threat with a strikeout.
“I was happy to be out there,” Frontera said. “It’s going to be a process to get back to pitching full games, but I feel great and I’m really glad to have an opportunity to pitch in this tournament.”
Dowlen was slated to be the No. 3 starter but his performance Thursday was second-to-none around South Jersey. The right-hander and starting third baseman on his non-pitching days overpowered a senior-laden Colts lineup that found itself in an early hole against Middletown North’s hot lineup.
Seniors Mike Roditis and Shane Doyle were also key contributors over week one of the Last Dance. Roditis is the team’s starting second baseman and in the last two wins of the week, he went a combined 5-for-6 with two doubles and three RBI. Doyle, meanwhile, manned first base and went 2-for-3 with a walk and an RBI on Wednesday, then doubled and scored two runs in Thursday’s win over CBA.
Middletown North also got contributions from a pair of freshmen in middle-infielder Ryan Frontera and outfielder R.J. Kernan. Ryan Frontera went 1-for-3 with a walk and two runs scored vs. Marlboro on Wednesday and Kernan was 2-for-4 with two doubles and two RBI in the win over CBA.
After its impressive week of outscoring three quality opponents – all of which went 2-0 in their other games during the week – by a combined score of 29-10, Middletown North’s reward is a South Jersey round-of-16 game against rival Middletown South, which advanced to the next round in thrilling fashion on Thursday. Playing under the name MS Baseball, the Eagles were the No. 5 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and represent another major challenge for the upstart Lions, who have met the moment so far.