JACKSON TWP. - According to Jackson Liberty baseball coach Jim Rankin, he can tell what kind of game his team is about to get into by the way the wind is blowing at its home field.

Whether it is blowing out like it was for Friday's seven-homer slugfest vs. Brick Memorial in the Ocean County Tournament quarterfinals, or in like it was in Saturday's semifinal vs. Southern Regional, it is another factor that doesn't change the end result: the Lions just keep winning.

For the second straight day, Jackson Liberty conceded an early three-run deficit and for the second straight day, the Lions erased it, beating 14th-seeded Southern, 7-5, for their 18th straight win and advancing to the OCT championship game for the first time in program history.

"I've got a resilient group and I have got a veteran group, which helps in games like this," Rankin said. "We're loaded with experience and we're fortunate that we can swing it. We get into a three-run deficit and that doesn't really scare us because we have guys who can swing the bat."

Jackson Liberty junior Shane Hickey stands on third after his bases-clearing, game-tying single on Saturday. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Jackson Liberty junior Shane Hickey stands on third after his bases-clearing, game-tying single on Saturday. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Jackson Liberty survived an 11-10 home run bonanza on Friday against Brick Memorial, which hit three home runs in the first four innings while taking a 7-4 lead in the top of the second and a 10-9 lead in the top of the fourth. The Lions, however, hit four home runs of their own and took the lead for good on senior Charlie Rudderow's solo shot in the bottom of the fifth.

"Every game we have been in this tournament has been a close game," senior catcher David Melfi said. "We're used to being those situations and ever when we get down, with our lineup, we can always come back."

Two of the heroes for Jackson Liberty Friday did not hit a home run. Sophomore Dan Keenan picked up a game-tying, two-out RBI single in the bottom of the fourth, while junior Shane Hickey shook off surrendering the three-run home run to sophomore Max Cala - his second of the game - in the fourth to pitch shutout ball over the final three innings to earn the win.

Both Keenan and Hickey were among Jackson Liberty's key contributors again on Saturday - this time Hickey at the plate and Keenan on the mound. Hickey finished 3-for-4 with a double and two RBI, including a fourth-inning, bases-loaded RBI single that turned into three runs and allowed Hickey to third base when the ball skipped past right fielder Matt Huebner.

The merry-go-round tied the game at 5-5 and Jackson Liberty took the lead for good when Hickey trotted home on an RBI ground out by senior Scott Wierciszewski. Hickey capped the scoring in the bottom of the sixth with another RBI single.

Keenan, meanwhile, made sure that lead held up the rest of the way. The sophomore right-hander - who started the game as the designated hitter - took over for senior starter Kevin Ritz on the mound in the top of the fifth inning and pitched three scoreless innings to earn the nine-out save.

"Shane has pitched big innings for us, but none bigger than the last three in the win over Brick Memorial," Rankin said. "Danny Keenan has given us some big innings as well and this was the biggest spot he has been in. It's good to see guys come through in some situations that might be a little unfamiliar because those situations are going to come up again and now they have done it."

Ritz was not at his sharpest on Saturday, but still lasted long enough to pick up his third win of the season. He walked five batters in the four-inning outing and committed an error that opened the door to three Southern runs in the top of the fourth inning.

In that inning, the Rams loaded the bases with an infield single, a bunt hit and the error. Ritz got a ground ball to Hickey at third, who cut off the runner at the plate for the first out and the go-ahead run scored on a fielder's choice ground out to Hickey, who took the force-out at second bases.

Senior Frank Pellegrino battled Ritz to a full count and on the eighth pitch of the at-bat, he lined a two-run single to left field to give Southern a 5-2 lead.

"I think (Ritz) just got rattled a bit," Rankin said. "They didn't really hit him hard. That one inning was just infield hits and then the two-out single, so his stuff was there. He just missed a couple close pitches and got some bad breaks."

Although Ritz was off his game on the mound, he brought his hot bat back to the field on Saturday. The wind was no match for his towering solo home run that cut Jackson Liberty's deficit to 2-1 in the bottom of the second, his fifth home run of the season. Ritz scorched a single to left and finished 2-for-4.

Melfi also bucked the wind by smashing a pair of doubles in a 2-for-3, three-run game. He led off the third with a lined shot to the gap in left-center and scored on the first of Wierciszewski's RBI ground-outs to tie the game at 2-2. Melfi later led off the the sixth with his 13th double of the season and scored on Hickey's second RBI single.

"I hit third in the order but this is baseball so you never know when you are going to hit in an inning," Melfi said. "It just so happened I had to lead off a couple times. Whether it's hitting a double or getting hit by a pitch, you want to be able to get something going, especially when you're down a few runs."

Southern reached the OCT semifinals for the second time in three years after reaching the final in 2017 for the first time in more than 30 years. The Rams made a spirited bid at another championship appearance as a No. 14 seed and got a big game Saturday from sophomore catcher Mike Gallaro. After missing a stint due to a concussion, Gallaro returned to the lineup Saturday and went 3-for-4 with a two-run single in the top of the first inning.

"We knew these last two games were going to be like this," Rankin said. "We knew Brick Memorial was going to be a battle and we knew Southern was riding high coming in here and we expected to be in for a fight for seven innings in both games."

Jackson Liberty will face a familiar opponent in Tuesday night's championship game at Toms River North, although the setting will be an unfamiliar one for both teams. Like Jackson Liberty, Point Pleasant Boro is also set to play in its first ever OCT final after beating Toms River East, 8-4, on Saturday.

The two Class B South rivals met twice in a three-day span less than two weeks ago and Jackson Liberty battled for wins in both. The Lions scored three runs in the top of the seventh inning to steal a 5-4 win at Point Boro on April 29 and took a 5-2 decision at Jackson Liberty two days later.

Point Boro will have both of its top two pitchers available after junior ace Nick Guzzi threw only 62 pitches in Saturday's win. Guzzi took the no-decision in the first meeting, striking out eight and allowing only four hits and two walks in 6 2/3 innings before running out of pitches.

Senior Sam Collins is also available after throwing 54 pitches on Saturday.

Jackson Liberty will not be as flexible in its pitching staff Tuesday, with both Ritz and Hickey ineligible to pitch - Hickey until Wednesday and Ritz until Thursday. Senior Nick DeCarlo threw 61 pitches in 1 2/3 innings against Brick Memorial and could throw up to 89 on Tuesday, while Wierciszewski, junior Tim Duffy and junior Ryan Gallacher are all fully available. Keenan will also be available for 107 pitches after throwing 43 on Saturday.

If the Lions can piece together their pitching and keep scoring runs against Point Boro's best, they will be in position to win the program's first tournament championship. The farthest Jackson Liberty has been in any tournament was the 2013 Shore Conference Tournament final, which it lost to Toms River North.

"We set our goals high coming into the year," Rankin said. "We wanted to win our division, we wanted to sweep our division, we wanted to win 20 games, which we did today. We also want to win a tournament championship or two and we're going to have an opportunity to do that on Tuesday. It's an exciting opportunity and I think our guys are really looking forward to the chance."


Box Score

Jackson Liberty 7, Southern 5

Southern (7-11)2003000571
Jackson Lib (20-1)011401X7121


Cole Markley (L, 1-4)49655188
Frank Pellegrino23110436
Kevin Ritz (W, 3-1)45535194
Dan Keenan (SV, 2)32001243

Top Hitters

Mike Gallaro3-4, 2 RBI
Frank Pellegrino1-3, R, 2 RBI
Cole Markley0-2, R, RBI, 2 SB
A.J. Mandell1-3, R
Jackson LibertyStats
Shane Hickey3-4, 2B, R, 2 RBI
David Melfi2-3, 2 2B, 3 R
Scott Wierciszewski1-3, 2 RBI
Kevin Ritz2-4, HR, R, RBI
Connor Keenan2-4, R



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