MANAHAWKIN - If there is one thing that does not scare the Southern Regional baseball team, it is facing long odds. A three-run deficit with six outs left is not supposed to be a recipe for success, but then again, the last 40 years of Shore Conference baseball says that Southern is not supposed to be playing for an Ocean County championship, either.

Thursday night at Toms River High School South, the Rams will play for their first Ocean County Tournament title in 40 years after erasing a three-run deficit in the sixth and beating Manchester, 4-3, in eight innings on Tuesday in the OCT semifinals.

Pinch-runner Connor Ciliberto scored from second base when a throw from shortstop pulled Manchester first baseman Derek Schmidt off the bag with two out in the bottom of the eighth for the winning run. The third-seeded Rams now advance to the Ocean County Tournament final for the first time since winning the tournament in 1977.

"This is huge," winning pitcher Nick Simone said. "None of us thought we were going to get this far in the first couple games of the season. Our main goal was making (the state tournament). We did that and we just kept winning, kept advancing and kept rolling."

Ciliberto pinch ran for first baseman Zach Oddo with two out in the eighth after Oddo picked up his second single of the game. Ciliberto then stole second base and broke for third on sophomore Cole Markley's ground ball to shortstop. The senior never broke stride around the third base bag and when Pat Carney's throw pulled Schmidt off the base, Ciliberto had just enough time to slide in ahead of Schmidt's throw home.

Southern senior Pat Barrett. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Southern senior Pat Barrett. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"I saw him get pulled off the bag and I just went," said Ciliberto, who said he did not even pick up head coach Keith Cocuzza in the third-base box. "I got to third base and I thought, 'I just gotta go.'"

"My assistant coach told me, 'Nice job sending him,'" Cocuzza said. "I said, 'Coach, I didn't even send him. I did not do a single thing. He did not stop. He did not hesitate. The throw pulled him off the bag and the first baseman hesitated for a second and that was enough."

Ciliberto also scored a run in the sixth inning as a courtesy runner for catcher Nolan Watson, who hit the second of back-to-back singles to start the inning. Senior second baseman Joey Robertson led off with a single to center and scored on an errant throw to third base after a passed ball - Southern's first run of the game. Ciliberto advanced to third on the throw and scored on a sacrifice fly by Marcos Matias to cut Manchester's lead to 3-2.

"It's very important for the catcher or a pitcher to get on base, because he's a game-changer on the bases," Cocuzza said of Ciliberto. "Everybody knows he's stealing and you put him on the bases, you've got a chance to score. He's a very good baserunner and a very fast baserunner, so he's very dangerous. He gives you a heart attack."

Southern caught a break later in the sixth when Garret Lange reached with two out on a wild pitch on a swinging strike three. Senior Joe Colonna then stroked a single to left field and Oddo came through with a two-out RBI single through the right side to chase home Lange with the tying run.

Watson also tripled with one out in the fourth inning as part of a 2-for-3 game, but Ciliberto ran into an out on the back end of an attempted first-and-third double steal, with Manchester second baseman Steven Rodriguez throwing him out at home after cutting off a throw from Jack Felipe.

Simone pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings to earn the win, taking over with a runner on second base an one out in the sixth inning and his team down 3-0. Simone got out of the jam on four pitches, inducing a pop-up and firing a three-pitch strikeout.

"I did not expect to pitch today, but when (Cocuzza) told me to warm up, I had it in my mind that I was ready to pitch," Simone said.

Simone allowed one baserunner to reach on an error to lead off the eighth and worked around it with three consecutive strikeouts. He struck out four and walked none while throwing 31 pitches.

In two OCT appearances, Simone has thrown 7 2/3 scoreless innings and allowed two hits, no walks and has struck out eight. He pitched a five-inning two-hitter Thursday in an 11-0 Southern win over Jackson Liberty.

"It was risky to go to Nick there because if we lose, I burn him for tomorrow too," Cocuzza said. "With a win, it makes the decision worth it.

"The way he came off the Jackson Liberty game - throwing strikes, striking people out - I felt comfortable going to him in that spot."

Pat Barrett started the game on the mound and allowed one earned run on eight hits in 5 1/3 innings. He hit one batter, did not issue a walk and struck out six while throwing 89 pitches.

Carney gave Manchester a 1-0 lead with an RBI single to left in the fifth after Larvis Smith started the rally with a double. The Hawks score the second run on an error that also extended the inning for freshman James Johns, who ripped an RBI single to right field to cap the three-run Manchester fifth.

Carney arrived at the game after the first pitch after finishing in the top five in the NJSIAA Group championships in golf earlier in the day to qualify for the Tournament of Champions.

Southern will play Manchester again Wednesday in the Shore Conference Tournament first round before taking on Toms River North Thursday in the Ocean County Tournament final, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Toms River South. Southern took both regular-season meetings against the defending OCT champion Mariners.

"I think it's amazing," Cocuzza said of being in the final. "I hope (the players) are excited, but I hope they're not just okay with getting there. I hope they still have that fire to win and they're not satisfied with being there. I want them to want to win and I think they do."


(3) Southern 4, (10) Manchester 3 (8 Innings)

Manchester (11-10)00003000384
Southern (13-6)00000301483


Joe Felipe5.263321097
Jagger Karaska (L, 1-1)22101136
Pat Barrett5.18310689
Nick Simone (W, 3-3)2.20000431

Top Hitters

ManchesterGame Stats
James Johns2-4, RBI, SB
Jarvis Smith1-3, 2B, R
Pat Carney1-3, R, RBI
Gavin Pabst2-4
SouthernGame Stats
Nolan Watson2-3, 3B, BB
Zach Oddo2-3, BB, RBI
Joey Robertson1-3, R



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