HAMILTON TWP. - At one point early in the NJSIAA Group II championship game Sunday at DeMeo Field in Veterans, it appeared as though the only team in New Jersey with a chance to win 30 games was going to end Raritan senior ace Zack Johnston's day early.

An early exit, however, would not have been like Johnston, and as he has all year, he pitched to his limit and gave his team a chance to win - this time with a state title on the line.

Johnston could not, however, pitch forever and once he was out of the game, Raritan's date with destiny ended against a team on its way to making history.

Johnston pitched into the eighth inning but watched as Pascack Hills threw together a game-winning rally in the top of the eighth to pull out a 3-2 win over the Rockets for their first overall group title since winning Group III in 1988.

Pascack Hills celebrates its Group II championship. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Pascack Hills celebrates its Group II championship. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"He's our guy," Raritan coach Jeff Struble said of Johnston. "You hope to get a guy like him to pitch big games for you. He's a pit bull. He never gets to high, he never gets to low. He's kept us in games all year and he did that again today. Unfortunately, we just couldn't get that big hit to get him one last win."

Pascack Hills scored its firs two runs in the top of the second inning on back-to-back RBI doubles by Chris Lum and Marc Hernandez and did not score again until the eighth - after Johnston left the mound.

Mike Rodriguez started the eighth inning rally with an infield single, which did come off of Johnston. The Rockets ace started the inning at 109 pitches - one shy of the single-game limit for a pitcher - and handed the ball off to starting second baseman and fellow senior Dan VanMeerbeke.

Brandon Siegenthaler worked a walk, starting pitcher Ryan Ramsey laid down a sacrifice bunt to set up second and third and VanMeerbeke pitched around shortstop Chris Curcino before ultimately issuing a walk to load the bases.

Lum returned to the plate with a chance to drive in another run and after working the count full, took a pitch off his foot to force in the go-ahead run.

Raritan was then tasked with scoring off of senior right-hander John Brodsky, who entered the game with scoreless streak of 34 2/3 innings during the NJSIAA Tournament dating back to his sophomore year. He retired the first two Raritan hitters before senior catcher Alex Lamattina singled to center and VanMeerbeke worked a walk to set up runners on first and second.

Sophomore first baseman D.J. Dekis hit the batter's box with a chance to tie the game with a single but his pop-up along the third-base line landed in the glove of Rodriguez for the final out.

Johnston also went 2-for-3 at the plate, including a leadoff singe in the bottom of the seventh inning to bring up the top of the order with none out. Struble opted not to ask junior center fielder Tyler Bruno - who entered the game hitting .448 and was 1-for-3 to that point - to bunt. Bruno hit a hard one-hopper back to the mound and Brodsky gloved it to start a 1-4-3 double play to squash the threat.

"He is hitting .450 and he's been our stud in the lineup for the last two years," Struble said of Bruno. "He's a threat to put the ball in a gap or over the fence and I want to give him a shot to do that. Looking back at it, maybe the bunt was the way to go, but I'm letting him swing the bat every time."

Raritan also loaded the bases in the bottom of the first against Ramsey, a University of Maryland commit as a junior. Ramsey, however, struck out consecutive batters with the bases loaded to put up a scoreless frame.

Johnston got into some first-inning trouble when he gave up a two-strike single to leadoff hitter Julian Bulzoni and balked him over to second base with no one out. He then struck out three straight batters to get out of the first.

The top of the second inning started with another infield single, which Lamattina erased with a caught stealing. An error put another runner out with one out, followed by the back-to-back doubles by Lum and Hernandez.

Raritan shaded its outfield toward the right-field line against the Cowboys' all-right-handed lineup, which both Lum and Hernandez exploited on their respective doubles. Lum hammered his double to the left-field warning track to score Curcio from first and Hernandez lined his double to center Bruno shaded into right-center field.

The shift eventually paid dividends with sophomore right fielder Ryan Kasmer covering up three shallow fly balls near the right field line.

The Rockets pulled even with two runs in the third, both of which were unearned against Ramsey. Bruno led off the third with a single and Kasmer followed with a walk to fire up the rally. Ramsey retired the next two batters but Lamattina kept the inning alive when he reached on an error that loaded the bases.

VanMeerbeke jumped ahead 3-0 in the count before Ramsey got it back to 3-2. VanMeerbeke won the battle by laying off a close 3-2 offering to get Raritan on the board and Kasmer scored on the next pitch, which Ramsey threw to the backstop.

Ramsey and Brodsky each threw four innings for Pascack Hills, capping nearly-identical, dominant seasons for the two Cowboys aces. Brodsky finished 10-0 with a 0.35 ERA in 60 2/3 innings while Ramsey was 9-1 with a 0.35 ERA in 60 1/3 innings, including 120 strikeouts.

The dual aces helped lead Pascack Hills to Bergen County Tournament and group championship in the same season for the first time since 1987 and 30 wins for the first time ever.

Johnston, meanwhile, finished his senior season 8-2 with a 1.28 ERA and a Shore-Conference-best 87 strikeouts after his eight-strikeout performance on Sunday.

"It's a heck of a season to go 8-1 in the conference we play in," Struble said. "To push us as far as he did, he set the bar for us here and I'm really proud of him. He had a great career at Raritan."


Box Score

Pascack Hills 3, Raritan 2 (8 Innings)

Pascack Hills (30-2)02000001351
Raritan (21-6)00200000254


Ryan Ramsey42204791
Jack Brodsky (W, 10-0)43001450
Zack Johnston (L, 8-2)753218112
Dan VanMeerbeke10002128

Top Hitters

Pascack HillsStats
Chris Lum1-3, 2B, 2 RBI
Marc Hernandez1-4, 2B, RBI
Zack Johnston2-3
Tyler Bruno1-4, R


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