Baseball – Point Boro Ends Liberty’s Win Streak, Wins 1st OCT Title
TOMS RIVER - When junior Nick Guzzi handed the ball to his coach, Point Pleasant Boro skipper Dave Drew, in the seventh inning Thursday night due to an elevated pitch count, he couldn't help but feel like he had been in this situation before - and it did not end well.
Guzzi just completed what he called his "one of his worst starts ever" but three outs after walking off the mound, it ended as one of his favorites.
Against a Jackson Liberty team that had their number during the regular season, Guzzi and Point Boro withstood a spirited attempt at another comeback and beat their Shore Conference Class B South division rival, 10-7, to snap Liberty's 18-game winning streak and capture the program's first ever Ocean County Tournament championship.
"This was about our legacy," Guzzi said. "We wanted to be a team that was the first at our school to do something and this was a great opportunity. We came up short in the state tournament last year but we learned a lot from the experience and we just weren't going to accept losing again."
PHOTO GALLERY: Point Boro vs. Jackson Liberty by Paula Lopez
After giving up an early 5-0 lead, Point Boro fired back with five runs in the top of the fifth and held on behind Guzzi and senior Sam Collins on the mound - with a big assist to the defense.
"It's an amazing feeling, especially beating that team," Collins said. "They are so tough, they are never out of a game, so to be able to finally beat them to win a championship - I can't describe it."
Junior Sam Young hit the tie-breaking two-run double in the fifth to put Point Boro ahead, 7-5. After the Panthers added another run on an error, sophomore Frankie Dominici ripped an RBI triple over the third-base bag and into the corner, then scored on a squeeze bunt by junior Cole Young to give Point Boro its 10th run.
Jackson Liberty cut the deficit to 10-6 on a Shane Hickey infield single in the fifth and appeared poised to draw closer in the sixth. Senior Kevin Ritz - who has hit five home runs this season and doubled early in the game - blasted a fly ball to deep center field with a runner on first. The ball appeared ticketed for the fence, but senior center fielder Christian Aurin ran it down for a tremendous running catch and the second out of the inning.
"As soon as it came off the bat I, was running," Aurin said. "There was nothing that was going to stop me from getting to that ball. Even if I ran into wall."
Guzzi responded with an excited wave of the cap toward his senior teammate.
"Our defense is really what keeps us in it, especially the last couple of games when we haven't been hitting a lot," Aurin said. "We started to pick up our hitting a little more and the defense is still there to come through."
Dominici at third was the other defensive standout for Point Boro as he gloved two hot-shots by Jackson Liberty catcher David Melfi - one in the first inning that he turned into a five-four-three double play and another in the seventh to record the first out of the inning at third base.
Dominici's second play at third came after Drew made the move to Collins following Guzzi's 106th pitch. For the second time in as many starts vs. Point Boro, Guzzi pitched into the seventh inning but ran up against the one-game limit of 110 and had to give the ball up. In a 5-4 loss to Jackson Liberty on April 29, Guzzi departed with the lead and one out in the seventh, only to watch the Lions come back to steal a win in Point Pleasant.
"I was a little nervous leaving the game, but I knew my teammates had my back," Guzzi said. "They had it all game, they had is all season long and I knew were were going to finish it. I was really confident."
While Thursday night's lead was larger, the situation facing Collins when he took over for Guzzi was not much easier. Senior center fielder Connor Keenan led off the inning with a single to right and Guzzi walked senior left fielder Charlie Rudderow on a 3-2 pitch that missed just up.
Collins came on in relief and his first task was dealing with Melfi, the Shore Conference's RBI leader with 40. Collins came through with the help of Dominici at third.
Junior Shane Hickey then worked a walk and Collins came through with another big out by inducing a pop-out by senior Scott Wierciszewski for the second out.
Junior Brandon Kinsman kept Jackson Liberty alive with a ground-ball single through the left side to score cut the Lions deficit to 10-7. Collins bounced right back and got senior Alex Torres to ground out to second baseman Connor Kennedy - who took over at second base as part of the defensive switch that accompanied the pitching change - for the game's final out.
"It's definitely different in a championship game," Collins said. "I knew I had to be ready to come in for any situation and I just took the mindset like I was starting. I just focused on keeping the ball low and letting them hit it. I know I got my defense and it worked out."
The final inning made for some drama for two teams that have been no stranger to it, particularly Jackson Liberty. The Lions erased two different three-run deficits in their 11-10 quarterfinal win over Brick Memorial and again came back from three-runs down to beat Southern, 7-5, in the OCT semifinal.
Jackson Liberty spotted Point Boro five runs by the top of the second inning and again erased the deficit.
Point Boro stormed out of the gate with a four-run first inning. Junior catcher Ryan Jasaitis fought off a two-run single into right with two out and senior Christian Aurin lined an RBI single to left for the third run. Dominici capped the first-inning rally with an RBI single for the first of his two RBI on the game.
Junior Nick Zbikowski roped an RBI double to left to add a run in the top of the seventh and stake Guzzi to a 5-0 lead.
Jackson Liberty's potent offense finally came to life in the bottom of the third, when the Lions scored five runs to tie the game. Ritz set the inning up with a long double to placed runners on second and third with none out. Sophomore Dan Keenan followed with a sacrifice fly and older brother, Connor, backed him up with an RBI double to score Ritz.
Keenan scored on a fielder's choice RBI that turned into two runs when an errant throw allowed Rudderow to score. Melfi scored on a sacrifice fly by Wierciszewski to cap the inning, which ended with Point Boro doubling off the runner at first. The runner scored prior to the double-off - a nearly-identical play to one that led to a protest by Ocean Township in last year's Monmouth County Tournament after it was called incorrectly.
Jackson Liberty senior starter Nick DeCarlo responded with a seven-pitch fourth inning to get Jackson Liberty right back to the dugout. The momentum seemed to fully swing over to the home dugout and the bottom of the fourth started in dubious fashion for Guzzi when his first strikeout of the game got away from Jasaitis and allowed Kinsman to reach first.
"We came in the dugout (after losing the lead) and we were upset," Drew said. "A lot of people were upset, but our guys had to refocus our energy and they did that. Credit to them."
PHOTO GALLERY: Point Boro vs. Jackson Liberty by Paula Lopez
Guzzi, however, did not let the inning snowball and retired the next three hitters he faced to get Point Boro back in the dugout before their big fifth inning.
"You just have to flush it and move on," Guzzi said. "That's the challenge in every game, whether things are going well or they are going bad. We lost the lead but there was still a lot of game left and yeah, we were mad, but nobody was giving up."
Statistically speaking, Guzzi is correct that his Thursday start was his worst of the season. He allowed seven runs - four earned over his six-plus innings while walking a season-high four and striking out a season-low three. He never quite found the grip on his breaking ball, although his fastball did top out at 89 miles-per-hour and his changeup was an effective offering for most of the outing.
One the flip side, he faced off against one of the Shore's two co-leaders in runs and runs per game along with Jackson Memorial and pitched into the seventh inning for the second time in two starts against the Lions.
The start also capped a tournament performance that earned Guzzi the OCT MVP Award. Guzzi went 3-0 in his three starts with a 1.55 ERA, 16 strikeouts, four walks and 14 hits allowed in 18 innings.
If their St.-John's-bound ace got the Panthers to Thursday's championship game, it was the total team effort that finished the job. Seven of the nine starters picked up at least one hit and the two that did not either drove in a run (Cole Young) or earned the win on the mound (Guzzi).
It was a satisfying win for a group that largely returned from the 2018 team, which reached the championship game of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group II bracket, only to come up short on the road against Haddonfield.
"Point Boro is such a small town and we have known what we've had our whole life," Aurin said. "We know each other and we push each other and I think that's why we have been able to work together come tournament time. We aren't a bunch of kids from four different middle schools and different towns all in the same building. It's just Point Boro."
On top of the players coming through on the field, the town came out to watch from the stands. With a caravan of support that traveled south to cheer the hometown team to its first county title, Drew and Co. appreciated the significance of the title.
"I am so amazed by these kids and with the support they came here with tonight," Drew said. "This is about Point Boro. The kids on the field got the job done, but this is for everybody here. We talked about giving a game ball out but this one is going back in the trophy case at the school."
Point Boro 10, Jackson Liberty 7
|Pt Boro (17-5)||4||1||0||0||5||0||0||10||9||1|
|Jackson Lib (20-2)||0||0||5||0||1||0||1||7||8||4|
|Nick Guzzi (W, 7-0)||6||7||7||4||4||3||106|
|Sam Collins (SV, 1)||1||1||0||0||1||0||19|
|Nick DeCarlo (L, 2-1)||4.1||8||10||5||1||3||98|
|Sam Young||1-3, 2B, 2 R, 2 RBI|
|Christian Aurin||2-4, R, RBI|
|Frankie Dominici||2-4, 3B, R, RBI|
|Nick Zbikowski||1-3, 2B, R, RBI|
|Ryan Jasaitis||1-4, 2 RBI|
|Sam Collins||1-4, 2 R, SB|
|Paul Franceschini||1-4, R|
|Connor Keenan||2-3, 2B, R, RBI|
|Shane Hickey||2-3, 2 RBI|
|Kevin Ritz||1-3, 2B, R|
|Charlie Rudderow||1-3, 2 R|
|Brandon Kinsman||1-4, RBI|
|Alex Torres||1-3, R|