Baseball – Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year: Eric Johnson, Howell
Eric Johnson moved with his family to Howell in 1989 and over the next 33 years, Johnson has immersed himself in baseball in the town, from the Little League level to the varsity team at Howell High School. There are people who got farther back in time at Howell, but throughout the last three decades, you won’t find anyone more a part of the day-to-day baseball operation in Howell.
That experience includes the program’s first ever trip to the NJSIAA Group IV championship game in 1994, when Johnson was a junior on the varsity team. It was a historic year for the Rebels, but it ended with a loss to Elizabeth in the last game of the season.
For 28 years, Johnson has kept that loss with him and while his has been head coach at his high school alma mater since 2010, the 2022 season was his first real opportunity to relive that championship run and to help his current players go where he and his teammates could not go nearly three decades earlier.
All he had to do was lead his team to a win over one of the top-five-ranked teams in the state with his top two starting pitchers both sidelined with injuries their suffered in the past two games.
As Johnson preached and his team demonstrated all year, Howell embodied a team in every way possible in the Group IV championship game and pulled out a 9-8 win over Hunterdon Central to win the school’s first ever baseball state championship.
"I grew up in Howell," Johnson said after winning the state final. "My family moved here in 1988. I love this school, I love this town and I love this team. I think of the history of Howell Baseball, there is only one other upset that might be comparable to this and that was a Little League upset. I think this is just an incredible win for this team and this town."
Howell’s six-game march to the Group IV championship capped the best season in school history, which included a single-season record 25 wins, the first outright Shore Conference Class A North division championship since 1990, the first Central Jersey Group IV championships since 1994 and the Rebels’ first ever Group IV championship.
In a conference that was home to two other teams that won their first group championship (Middletown North and Ranney), one that won its first ever sectional championship (Point Pleasant Beach) and another that won its first division title in more than a decade while also winning its first sectional title in nearly two decades (Rumson-Fair Haven), Johnson’s job leading Howell to a 25-6 season with division and state championships is the hand’s down pick for the Shore Sports Network Baseball Coach of the Year.
Howell opened the season ranked No. 10 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and picked by SSN to finish third in the Class A North standings behind 2021 Group IV champion Middletown South and perennial non-public power Christian Brothers Academy. The Rebels returned a steady right-handed starter and infield in senior Dan Furlong, power-hitting shortstop Thomas Strauch, emerging star junior outfielder in Russell Halvorsen and a collection of arms for the pitching staff that gave Howell a legitimate chance to make noise throughout the 2022 season.
The season could not have started much better for Howell. Led by Furlong, the Rebels rode a deep, effective, and healthy pitching staff to a 9-0 start, with sophomores Joe Zito and Braden Walsh emerging as dependable regulars in a lineup of all seniors plus Halvorsen.
Even when the pitching hit a slump in the middle of the season, Howell’s offense came to the rescue with wins of 9-8 over Marlboro, 8-7 over Middletown North and 18-13 over Middletown South. The bats also kept Howell in the game in a 12-11 loss to Wall and 11-10 loss to Middletown South.
After defeating Rumson-Fair Haven, 3-2, behind a stellar pitching performance from senior left-hander Nick Gomes, Howell ascended to the No. 1 ranking in the Shore Sports Network Top 10. The Rebels’ stay, however, was a short one, as Howell – seeded No. 2 in the Shore Conference Tournament – got blitzed by No. 15 Central, 19-2, in the SCT round of 16 in a game started by Furlong. In their first game as the No. 1 team, the Rebels were humbled.
While the 19-2 loss to Central was a low point in the season, it was not the end point. Howell regrouped by winning three of its next four in preparing for the state tournament and was immediately tested in the Central Jersey Group IV First Round with a visit from Manalapan and ace Tyler Kane. Howell defeated Manalapan on opening day in a game started by Kane, but the Braves were leading, 3-1, when Kane was lifted after five innings.
In Howell’s second look at can, the Rebels jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning behind a two-run double by Gomes and rode Furlong – who took a shutout into the seventh – on the mound to a 3-1 win over their division rival.
Despite earning the No. 2 seed in the CJ IV bracket, Howell had to relinquish its home-field advantage for the sectional quarterfinals against Monroe due to Howell hosting a sectional championship track and field meet. The teams met at Old Bridge High School and Gomes again led the way, pitching Howell to a 5-4 win while also hitting a triple in Howell’s four-run sixth inning, which broke a 1-1 tie.
Howell faced another daunting challenge in the sectional semifinals back on its home field. Jackson Memorial brought a hot-hitting lineup in to face Furlong and the Rebels ace quieted the Jaguars for the first six innings while stranding an army of Jackson Memorial baserunners. Howell took a 3-0 lead into the sixth and again held off a seventh-inning rally to secure a 3-2 win and a trip to the sectional final for the first time since winning it in 1994.
For the first time ever, Howell got to host a sectional championship game and put on a show for the hundreds in the school community who showed up to support the baseball team on its historic day. Howell fell behind upstart No. 9 seed East Brunswick, but quickly got the run back on a leadoff home run by Halvorsen. The Rebels took a 4-1 lead thanks to a mix of walks and errors and Zito made it 6-1 with a two-run homer in the bottom of the third.
In the fourth inning, Howell ran into its first major bout with adversity in the state tournament. Gomes injured his wrist sliding into second base and when he went back to the mound for the top of the fifth, he was in too much pain to continue. Postgame x-rays revealed a broken bone in his wrist and he would miss the remainder of the season.
The good news for Howell is it wrapped up an 8-2 win and a long-awaited sectional title thanks to solid relief work from senior Jason Pace and would now be able to start Furlong for as long as the season lasted. Furlong got the ball to start the Group IV semifinal at Cherokee and if the Rebels could beat the Chiefs in a battle of aces, Furlong would be eligible to pitch again five days later in the Group IV final in Hamilton.
Those plans fell apart four pitches into the Group IV semifinal. Furlong was struck on the right side of his face with a line drive and had to be carted off the field. While the Howell senior was alert leaving the field, the impact left him with a broken jaw and left Howell without its top two pitchers.
In his place, senior Nick Barracato turned in seven heroic, shutout innings to push Cherokee into extra innings. Pace then took over for a scoreless eighth and in the top of the ninth, Zito started the inning with a double.
That’s when Johnson pushed two managerial buttons that changed Howell’s fortunes. First, he inserted junior Jack Gartenstein to pinch-run for Zito and Gartenstein paid it off by taking third on a wild pitch.
With one out in the inning, a pitch skipped to the backstop, settled in the area between the permanent fence and the netting behind the plate, but was not far enough away from the catcher for Gartenstein to score from third. Johnson, immediately pointed out to the umpire crew that the ball was lodged in the fencing, which, by rule, is a dead ball and an automatic advance of one base for the baserunners. The umpires agreed and Gartenstein got to trot home with the go-ahead run.
Pace then mowed down the Chiefs in order in the bottom of the ninth and Howell was head to its first Group IV final in 28 years.
With Barracato and Pace set to tag-team the state final while Gomes and Furlong supported their team from the dugout, Howell had to find a way to be a 25-4 Hunterdon Central team that planned on starting senior left-hander Kyle McCoy – a University of Maryland commit that had yet to allow a run all season.
Howell jumped all over a stunned McCoy, with Strauch crushing a two-run homer three batters into the game and senior second baseman Nick Gallo – in the batting order with Furlong and Gomes both out – added a two-run double to stake Howell to a 4-0 lead.
Hunterdon Central, however, cut the deficit in half and after Strauch drove in two more to make it 6-2, the Red Devils rallied for five runs in the fourth inning to go up, 7-6.
Howell did not stay down for long. The Rebels came through with three runs in the top of the firth, with Halvorsen giving Howell the lead back with a two-run single to make it 8-7.
Meanwhile, Johnson tried to find the pitching combination to get the final nine outs. He went with junior Aidan Bauer to finish the fourth inning after Barracato and Pace could not rediscover their magic from earlier rounds. Johnson then called on senior left-hander Ryan Bilello – who started the game in left field – to try and close it out.
Bilello was up to the task, but his effective pitching wasn’t the only benefit of him entering the game. Johnson moved Halvorsen from right field to left and it pair off with Halvorsen making a running catch on a ball hit in front of him, charging hard on a single to keep a runner from scoring from third and a game-saving, sliding catch for the second out of the seventh inning as the tying run stood on second base.
"Coach Brian Blood as an assistant coach is every bit of why we are here," Johnson said. "Ryan tends to give up the ball to the left side when he pitches. He talked about it with me and I thought it was just a great idea and moving Russell to leftfield was absolutely the right thing to do. He is a great outfielder and he came up big today."
Bilello then induced a game-ending flyout to senior centerfielder Devon Smith and the Rebels celebrated a 9-8 win over Hunterdon Central and a hard-earned Group IV championship.
The final victory that escaped the clutches of Johnson’s grasp when he was a player would not be denied to his team in 2022, even as the adversity piled up during the second half of the season. The result was a first ever No. 1 finish in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and a No. 3 ranking in New Jersey by NJ Advance Media – the highest ever for Howell.
"This team is no more talented than some of the others we have had, but they were just a better team," Howell coach Eric Johnson said. "Some guys talk about loving baseball, but they don't mean it. These guys truly love it. They are just a very unselfish group that understood everything that needed to get done in every situation. You never see a guy yell at anyone for not making a play. They love each other and they picked each other up. That's why they're champions."