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FREEHOLD TWP. - The Freehold Township baseball team has seniors who look the part and, in many cases, have played as many varsity baseball games as most senior players have heading into their final year of high school.

Sometimes, however, coach Todd Smith has to remind himself that as much as his Class of 2021 core has grown physically and mentally since 2019, those players did not have a 2020 to work out some of the kinks that young players often do between their sophomore and seniors seasons.

"I brought a lot of these guys up as freshmen and some of them started as sophomores, so last year would have been big for them as far as the mental side of the game," Smith said. "Physically, they are seniors: they are bigger, they are stronger and they are ready to play at a high level from a physical perspective. Sometimes, we just make the careless mental mistakes because we haven't had the time to correct them. The regular season in high school baseball is much different than any other baseball they play."

While that process is ongoing, the Patriots are showing they have a feel for what matters most once the game starts: winning.

Senior left-hander Matt Villapiano took a two-hit shutout into the seventh inning after classmate Chris Corchado drove in a run in each of the first two innings to help spark the undefeated Patriots - No. 9 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 - to a 4-2 win over previously-unbeaten and No. 5 ranked Middletown South Monday.

Freehold Township senior Matt Villapiano. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Freehold Township senior Matt Villapiano. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"Today did have a big-game feel with both teams playing well," Corchado said. "We were motivated to come in and give them their first loss. We did everything we wanted to: we pitched a great game, we came through with runners in scoring position and we came out on top."

Freehold Township jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first on an RBI groundout to shortstop by Corchado to plate senior leftfielder Zach Gorman, who led off the game with a single. Senior designated hitter Joe Zappulla followed with an RBI single to center to score senior third baseman Patrick Burns, who was hit by a pitch and stole second base.

The Patriots tacked on two more runs in the bottom of the second on a two-out error followed by an RBI single through the left side by Corchaco to score junior rightfielder Jon Olik after Olik had singled. Gorman also tried to score on the play but Middletown South leftfielder Matt Pontari fired a strike to the plate to cut down the would-be run.

Corchado was 2-for-3 with all three of his balls in play going to the shortstop-third-base hole on the left side of the infield. He punched his second hit of the day through the left side on a hit-and-run to chase senior centerfield Nick Kolozsvary to third base with one out in the fifth. That threat fell by the wayside, but Corchado's early at-bats with runners in scoring position proved to be the difference.

"I was just thinking about finding a ball middle-out and just driving it that way to get the run in and get us on the board," Corchado said.

With a constant wind, an unpredictable infield surface and the aforementioned learning curve all playing a part, the two teams combined for nine errors in the game, but Freehold Township made enough plays behind Villapiano to keep the Eagles off the board for six complete innings.

"We're still a little inconsistent defensively and to be honest, it's expected," Smith said. "We didn't have a season last year and I couldn't work with the guys in the summer so we're still learning. But while we're learning, we're winning, which is a good thing. We're competing and we've got a great group of guys that support one another, which is the best part about it. And they're having fun."

Villapiano did plenty of work on his own as well, allowing only two hits in 6 1/3 innings while walking two, hitting two batters and striking out seven.

"(Both teams) came in with a lot of momentum so I knew they were going to come in hot," Villapiano said. "It's a 4-0 team that's swinging the bats well, putting up a lot of runs. I just wanted to throw strikes and give my team a chance to win."

Middletown South senior starter Jack Shea settled in after the first two innings and kept the Eagles in the hunt for a 5-0 start to the season. His team finally threatened in the top of the sixth inning, putting runners on second and third base with no one out against Villapiano thanks to a pair of Patriots errors.

Freehold Township's senior left-hander responded with a strikeout, then hit Pontari to load the bases with one out. Villapiano then got a huge strikeout for the second out and induced a flyball out to right field to end the threat without surrendering a run.

"That was a very tough inning," Villapiano said. "It was tough out there with the wind but my defense stepped up, made some plays and helped my out of it."

Villapiano struck out the first batter of the seventh, but issued a walk and hit another batter on the next two plate appearances to end his day at 100 pitches.

Burns took over on the mound and got the first out on a flyout to left before Middletown South senior first baseman Joe Stanzione laced a two-run double to left-center, with Kolozsvary nearly coming up with a diving catch in center to end the game.

Instead, the tying run came to the plate, but Burns locked in for the strikeout to end the game.

With Monday's win, Freehold Township improved to 3-0 in the unforgiving Shore Conference Class A North division and will give the ball to returning ace Zach Gorman Wednesday to try to complete the season sweep of the Eagles in Middletown. Gorman - Class A North All-Division selection as a sophomore - threw five one-hit innings against Marlboro last week.

Meanwhile, Villapiano has emerged as another reliable senior starter for Smith to lean on in big games. In his first start of the season, Villapiano gave up three runs in four innings in a win over Freehold Boro, but those three runs came on only three hits and one walk while striking out eight.

"He actually threw the ball very well against Freehold Boro," Smith said. "There were a couple of lucky plays, some wind-aided balls and the line didn't look as good as the way he pitched. Today, he was better. The big thing today was the pitchers didn't put as many people on base."

"I did as much work as I could during the pandemic and to get ready for the season, so I felt like I was ready coming in," Villapiano said. "Most of us played as sophomores, so we knew back the we were going to compete for the next three years. Last year was tough but we're excited about the opportunity this year."

The Class A North schedule won't offer Freehold Township or any of the division's other seven teams a break, but the Patriots are off to a fast start as they chase a division championship with that senior class that is quickly catching up on all the things it missed during a lost 2020 season.

"We have a lot of motivation after losing last year," Corchado said. "We want to come out and play every game and not take it for granted, because you don't know when it might be taken away - whether it's us or the other team."

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