Baseball – NJSIAA Sectional Final Preview: Howell, East Brunswick Look to End Title Droughts
Central Jersey Group IV Championship
Friday, June 10, 2022
No. 9 East Brunswick (17-12) at No. 2 Howell (22-6), 2:15 p.m.
East Brunswick at a Glance
Head Coach: Chris Kenney
Last Sectional Championship: 1997
Probable Starting Pitcher
Joe Ditzel, Jr., LHP (4-2, 0.84 ERA, 41.2 IP, 25 H, 23 BB, 43 K)
Notable Available Pitchers (With number of pitches available)
Dustin McGuinness, So., RHP (110)
Aaron Warner, Jr., RHP (110)
Dylan Lugo, Sr., 1B (.258, 3 2B, 1 3B, 3 HR, 18 R, 13 RBI)
Romeo Diaz, Sr., 3B (.217, 3 2B, 2 3B, 7 R, 4 RBI)
Jack Nelson, Jr., OF (.132, 2 2B, 1 HR, 11 R, 7 RBI, 5 SB)
Vinny LaRocca, Sr., OF (.256, 3 2B, 1 HR, 12 R, 9 RBI)
Christian Bermudez, Sr., 2B (.282, 9 R, 4 RBI)
Ryan Basham, Sr., OF (.268, 7 2B, 2 3B, 12 R, 18 RBI)
Jason Agrait, Jr., C (.161, 1 2B, 2 HR, 7 R, 3 RBI)
Dustin McGuinness, So., SS (.315, 7 2B, 11 R, 15 RBI)
Road to the Final
First Round: Joe Ditzel fired 3 1/3 innings of shutout relief to earn the win and Ryan Basham and Dustin McGuinness each went 3-for-5 with two runs scored to help the Bears hold off No. 8 Freehold Township, 8-6. McGuinnes also drove in two, while both Vinny LaRocca and Romeo Diaz each went 2-for-4 with an RBI.
Quarterfinal: Ditzel came back on two-days rest after throwing 35 pitches in the win over Freehold Township and pitched a two-hit shutout as the Bears eliminated No. 1 and defending Group IV champion Middletown South, 1-0, in one of the tournament’s biggest upsets so far. Ditzel struck out four and walked three during his 90-pitch outing, while McGuinness took care of the offense by driving in the game’s only run in the first inning.
Semifinal: Junior Ryan Schultz came off the bench and delivered a go-ahead RBI single in the top of the eighth inning for his first hit of the season – the deciding blow in a 4-2, extra-inning win over rival and No. 5 North Brunswick. The Bears rallied for the tying run in the top of the seventh inning, with Dylan Lugo leading off with a single and scoring on a sacrifice fly by McGuinness, who also earned the win with two innings of scoreless relief on the mound. Basham tacked on an RBI single in the eighth for the final East Brunswick run.
Howell at a Glance
Head Coach: Eric Johnson
Last Sectional Championship: 1994
Probable Starting Pitcher
Nick Gomes, Sr., LHP (4-1, 2.76 ERA, 25.1 IP, 17 H, 9 BB, 37 K)
Notable Available Pitchers
Ryan Bilello, Sr., LHP
Jason Pace, Sr., RHP
Nick Barracato, Sr., RHP
Russell Halvorsen, Jr., RF (.452, 9 2B, 1 3B, 5 HR, 29 R, 16 RBI, 9 SB)
Thomas Strauch, Sr., SS (.375, 11 2B, 1 3B, 10 HR, 25 R, 38 RBI, 4 SB)
Joe Zito, So., 3B (.338, 8 2B, 1 HR, 21 R, 17 RBI, 3 SB)
Nick Gomes, Sr., P/LF (.306, 7 2B, 2 3B, 1 HR, 21 R, 10 RBI, 3 SB)
Braden Walsh, So., 1B (.275, 5 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 18 R, 29 RBI, 2 SB)
Dan Furlong, Sr., DH (.297, 4 2B, 1 HR, 18 R, 16 RBI, 3 SB)
Nick Todisco, Sr., LF (.297, 3 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 27 R, 9 RBI, 5 SB)
Devon Smith, Sr., CF (.244, 8 2B, 2 HR, 21 R, 14 RBI, 8 SB)
Jeremiah Wojenski, Sr., C (.290, 4 2B, 12 R, 15 RBI, 1 SB)
Road to the Final
First Round: Dan Furlong pitched a 74-pitch complete game and the Rebels jumped on Manalapan ace Tyler Kane early with a two-run double by Nick Gomes in the first inning on the way to a 3-1 win over the No. 15 Braves.
Quarterfinal: Gomes turned in another huge game for Howell, pitching a complete game with nine strikeouts and no walks and ignited a four-run sixth inning with a triple as the Rebels edged No. 7 Monroe, 5-4. Thomas Strauch broke a 1-1 tie with an RBI double to score Gomes and Furlong followed with an RBI single. Jeremiah Wojenski made it 4-1 with an RBI double and Joe Zito capped the five-run inning with an RBI single. Gomes gave up three unearned runs in the seventh thanks to his own throwing error, but completed the game to push Howell into the next round.
Semifinal: Furlong took a shutout into the seventh inning for the second straight game and staved off a rally by No. 3 Jackson Memorial to pitch Howell to a 3-2 win and its first sectional final appearance since 1994. Howell struck for two runs in the bottom of the second thanks to two walks, two Jaguars errors and an RBI single by Devon Smith, who also made a diving catch in centerfield to secure the final out of the game.
A Closer Look
Two locked-in left-handers are likely to take the ball for each team in the Central Jersey Group IV championship game. Ditzel has thrown 10 1/3 scoreless innings during the NJSIAA Tournament and has allowed just one earned run in his last seven appearances, spanning 33 innings. He will have a chance to pick up his third win of the tournament after winning each of East Brunswick’s first two tournament games.
Gomes, like Ditzel, started the season as a reliever, but has only recently built up to a starting workload. The transition has gone well for Gomes, whose first start of the season was a 3-2 win over Rumson-Fair Haven (21-4) in which he struck out eight in 6 2/3 innings.
Howell brings much more firepower to the table offensively, having scored 210 runs in 28 games compared to East Brunswick’s 116 in 29 games. During this postseason, however, East Brunswick has outscored opponents, 13-8, while Howell’s NJSIAA playoff margin is 11-7 after winning back-to-back one-run games.
One possible reason for East Brunswick’s uptick in scoring – and overall success in the tournament – has been its draw. The Bears opened with a Freehold Township team that lacks a clear No. 1 pitcher, then faced two opponents – Middletown South and North Brunswick – that each have, arguably, the two best junior pitchers in the state, but did not have to face either. Ben Schild did not pitch for Middletown South in its loss to East Brunswick, while the Bears also avoided Rutgers commit Zach Konstantinovsky in the semifinal win over North Brunswick. East Brunswick will also dodge Furlong on Friday.
Howell’s Achilles Heel, meanwhile, has been the seventh inning. The Rebels have allowed only seven runs in three games so far during the tournament and six of them have scored in the seventh inning. In the other six innings, Furlong and Gomes have been nearly untouchable and Gomes will look to continue that trend against an East Brunswick team that has shown it can score early (Middletown South), late (East Brunswick) and often (Freehold Township) in its three tournament wins.
Howell is also looking to make school history by winning its 23rd game, which would establish a new single-season program record. Tuesday’s win vs. Jackson Memorial tied the previous record, set by the 1994 team that reached the Group IV championship game and lost to an Elizabeth team that had on its coaching staff Frank Malta, who went on to coach at Jackson Memorial and is now the athletic director at East Brunswick.
East Brunswick's other connection to the Shore Conference is its head coach, Chris Kenney. Kenney was a longtime assistant at Christian Brothers Academy under his father, Marty Kenney. Chris's brother, Marty Jr., is the current head coach at CBA.
Prediction: Howell, 6-3