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HAMILTON TWP. - There were no fewer than three reliable pitchers ready to pitch for the Middletown South baseball team on Saturday against Montclair in the Group IV championship game at Veterans Park and over the course of the week, Eagles coach Chris LeMore would not make it public which of the three would start Middletown South's first group championship game in 22 years.

Privately and among his team, however, there was never a doubt who was getting the ball and once the game started, the choice looked even more obvious.

Sophomore right-hander Ben Schild was on his game from the first pitch to his 105th, which completed a two-hit shutout and a 6-0 Middletown South win over Montclair to cap the program's first state championship season since 1996.

Schild walked just one and hit one batter while striking out seven for his second shutout and third win of the state tournament. He finished a breakout sophomore season having allowed only five earned runs over 56 2/3 innings - a resume that made the decision for LeMore all the more apparent.

"As soon as I woke up this morning, I knew it was going to be a big day," Schild said. "I knew I had to step up and thankfully, I got the job done."

"I knew I was going with Ben all the way," LeMore said. "Ben has been our kid that has gone out and pitched in all our big games and then Matthew (Pontari) has gone out and pitched in even bigger games. But when you get to a point like this, you want to put your kids in the best position to be successful."

Then again, LeMore and Schild knew he would get the ball in a hypothetical state championship game before he even threw his first pitch as a high-school pitcher.

"He knew I was starting today probably three months ago," Schild joked. "I was expecting it, coach knew it in his mind and we may not have said anything, but everyone on the team knew I was pitching this game.

"The other guy who was going to throw was Matt Pontari and even he said, 'I'll be ready if you need me but this is Ben's game to win.'"

Photo by Matt Manley

In each of his last two starts, Schild had to labor to make it through four innings and in his last outing, he left after five innings trailing 3-1 and in danger of suffering his first loss of the season. One start earlier at Hunterdon Central, he made it through four innings on 80 pitches and did not return to the mound after a weather delay that lasted for more than an hour.

"I think I was in bases-loaded, no-out jams in every single state game before today," Schild said. "I obviously don't expect to be in those type of situations but my parents always taught me to just stay composed and stay within yourself. I know if I make the right pitches, it's going to get weak contact or I'll strike someone out."

On Saturday, however, Schild was on top of his game early. He breezed through the top of the first inning on 12 pitches, striking out two batters in the process. Schild did the same in the top of the second on 17 pitches.

"I threw 105 pitches and probably 95 of them were fastballs," Schild said. "I was just going right at people and then I started feeling my slider really good at the end of the game and I threw a few changeups. The plan was basically to go with the fastball until they proved they could hit it and they never really did."

By the time the 6-foot-5 right-hander returned for the second inning, he had a lead. Senior right fielder Patrick Eagone took the first pitch he saw off his elbow guard to give the Eagles a leadoff baserunner. Senior catcher Greg Trezza moved him to second base with his 10th sacrifice bunt of the season and Eagone took second on a ground out by senior left fielder Matt Pontari.

That brought up senior first baseman Joe Stanzione - the hero of Monday's 4-3 win over Clearview. After bashing two home runs and the game-winning single in the bottom of the seventh inning on Monday, Stanzione opened up the scoring on Saturday by chopping a single into left field to chase home Eagone.

Middletown South went back to the small-ball well in the bottom of the second, this time with sophomore designated hitter Will Christopher leading off with the first of his three singles in the game. LeMore again opted for the sacrifice bunt, only this time, Montclair starting pitcher Jeremy Sacks threw the ball away, putting runners at second and third base with none out.

"I really wanted to to just get on anyway I could because the guys behind me are always moving runners and putting the ball in play," Christopher said. "Today, a couple balls fell in and I got on every time to get us going."

Junior third baseman Evan Wood followed with an RBI groundout to shortstop to score Christopher and Montclair avoided a bigger inning by snuffing out a suicide squeeze attempt - throwing a pitchout to catch DeMarco in a rundown for the second out. Sophomore shortstop Will Doyle and Eagone followed with back-to-back infield singles before Sacks ended the threat.

The Mounties started to make Schild work harder in the third inning, when Melvin Matias singled to start the top of the frame. Schild promptly picked him off at first base and got out of his longest inning (19 pitches) after walking No. 9 hitter Brett Tanifer.

After a scoreless third, the Eagles struck for three runs in the bottom of the fourth to extend their lead to 5-0, with Montclair senior Sean Brown now on the mound after starting the game at shortstop. Christopher again started the rally with a leadoff single, with DeMarco again dropping a sacrifice bunt to move Christopher to second.

"Ben is one of my best friends on and off the field, so to watch him go out in the state championship game and shove like he did is just incredible," Christopher said. "We have so much confidence him to go out and do it every time and it definitely gives me and the other guys confidence as well."

Wood and Doyle each drew a walk to load the bases and Eagone followed by smacking a two-run single to left field to plate both Christopher and Wood. Trezza tacked on another run with a single to right field that scored Doyle.

Christopher also sparked another scoring rally in the fifth with a one-out single - this one on a line drive to left after singling to center and right in his first two at-bats. Christopher got caught off first base by sophomore left-hander Anthony Anzaldi but made it to second thanks to a bad throw from first, which also allowed Christopher to advance to third. He then scored on a sacrifice fly by Wood - the junior third baseman's second RBI of the game.

Christopher was the offensive standout, finishing 3-for-3 with three runs scored - another sophomore, along with Schild and Doyle, for the Eagles to build around for the next two seasons.

"When we played in the Shore Conference final, he was a little apprehensive," LeMore said of Christopher. "We talked about him understanding that he belongs here and today, he showed not only the Shore and the entire state of New Jersey, but he showed everybody that that kid is a player."

"I really didn't know what to expect this year," Christopher said. "I really wanted to play varsity. Going into tryouts, I said I'm going to do anything I can to get on the field with the varsity team. I started off on jayvee and I worked my way up to starting on a sate championship team."

From there, Schild found a second wind, retiring 11 of the last 12 batters he faced. Nick Levine broke a streak of 10 straight retired by Schild with a double down the left-field line with two out in the seventh, but Schild bounced back to induce a game-ending fly out to Pontari in left.

"Once we saw the ball go up in the air, I knew Pontari was going to get under it," Stanzione said. "To see him catch it felt amazing and to be able to dog-pile again was a great feeling."

With one last win, Schild finished his sophomore season with a 8-0 record, a 0.62 ERA and 83 strikeouts against just 17 walks.

"This is only the beginning," LeMore said. "We're only just scratching the surface with this kid. I have been working at Thompson Middle School for 18 years before becoming the baseball coach here, so I have been talking to Ben since he was in sixth grade."

Middletown South finished the season 22-9 with an 18-2 record against teams outside of its Shore Conference Class A North division, with both losses coming to Red Bank Catholic in tournament games.

The Eagles graduated a talented 2020 senior class that did not get a chance to compete during the spring of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a missed opportunity, but losing the entire season influenced the 2021 team's mindset.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed about losing last year and unsure how we were going to be without those seniors," Eagone said. "Last year had a big effect on our midset and how we came into this year. At the beginning of the season, you're constantly thinking about COVID and this or that could be your last game. We played every game like our last because we didn't want it taken away like last year."

"We had to potential to do something special last year because those seniors were great," said Stanzione, whose team wore the number 20 on their hats all season to commemorate the lost 2020 season. "We were best friends with each other and they were just a great group and I really feel like we could be looking at back-to-back if we had last year."

With Schild only getting started on his high-school career, the Eagles already have eyes on being a dynasty.

"He has been my coach for four or five years now," Schild said. "He has been my hitting coach and we have always talked about winning three state championships here. I don't know how he knew he was going to be coach, but we knew I was throwing this game, no matter what."

"I have been talking about this since with the kids since I first met them in (October 2019)," said LeMore, who was hired as the Middletown South head baseball coach ahead of the 2020 season. "I told them where I wanted them to go and what I wanted them to be and we were going to prepare to play in this game. Whether it was this game, the Shore Conference final, Monmouth County final or the sectional final, I wanted them to know where my expectations were. The sky is the limit."

 

Box Score

Middletown South 6, Montclair 0

1234567RHE
Montclair (24-7-1)0000000022
Midd South (22-9)110310X680

Pitching

MontclairIPHRERBBSOPC
Jeremy Sacks (L, 3-3)24220128
Sean Brown23333140
Anthony Anzaldi21101326
Middletown SouthIPHRERBBSOPC
Ben Schild (W, 8-0)720017105

Top Hitters

MontclairGame Stats
Nick Leone1-3, 2B
Melvin Matias1-2
Middletown SouthGame Stats
Will Christopher3-3, 3 R, SB
Patrick Eagone2-3, R, 2 RBI
Joe Stanzione1-3, RBI
Evan Wood0-1, R, 2 RBI
Will Doyle1-2, R
Greg Trezza1-4, RBI