EAST BRUNSWICK - Southern Regional baseball coach Keith Cocuzza was right about one thing regarding his players and wrong about another following a season-ending loss to Hunterdon Central Wednesday in the Group IV semifinals at East Brunswick Tech High School.

He said his team probably didn't fully appreciate what it had accomplished over the last two months - particularly over the last two-and-a-half weeks -  in the moments after the season just ended. Instead, his team of 12 seniors only felt the pain of the ride being over.

Cocuzza was right that his players were feeling the sting, but even with the pain still raw, they appreciated what their state tournament run meant.

After jumping out to an early lead, the Rams saw their historic run through the Group IV Tournament come to an end Wednesday at the hands of defending Group IV champion Hunterdon Central, 5-2.

Southern coach Keith Cocuzza (left) and junior Marcos Matias. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Southern coach Keith Cocuzza (left) and junior Marcos Matias. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"After losing like that, it's hard to think about the whole run we had, but I think it's amazing," Wednesday's starting pitcher and regular shortstop Pat Barrett said. "It's been a long time coming for it to happen and to get this far is really a dream."

Southern's loss ends the program's longest state tournament run in 50 years. Friday's South Jersey Group IV win over Lenape clinched the Rams' first sectional championship since 1967 and the Rams won it as a No. 11 seed.

"The run we went on is unbelievable and these kids don't want to hear that right now," Cocuzzo said. "They just lost and they thought they should win. In a couple of weeks, they are going to realize the run they went on and realize what they accomplished. Right now, they are blind to that because they had their eyes on Saturday.

"It's been 50 years. They should be really, really proud of themselves. For once, we had  community behind us, we had fans at all the games, we went to the Ocean County Tournament final, we won a Shore Conference (Tournament) game and won our section. That hasn't happened at Southern for a very long time."

Hunterdon Central will face Millburn in the Group IV final on Saturday in Toms River at a site and time to be determined.

"It sucks going out with a loss, but I think we handled ourselves pretty well," said Barrett, one of the 12 seniors. "They are a good team, we're a good team and they (Hunterdon Central) just came out on top today."

The Red Devils answered two Southern runs in the bottom of the second inning with a two-run triple by Andrew Ollwerther and RBI single by Pete Cosentino on consecutive pitches in the bottom of the third and tacked on two more runs over the course of the game to keep Southern at a distance.

Southern loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the second and opened the scoring when left fielder Vaughn Walker drew an RBI walk on a 3-2 pitch after falling behind 0-2 to start the at-bat. Sophomore Cole Markley followed with a ground ball to shortstop and beat the relay from second to first to pick up an RBI fielder's choice ground out and give the Rams a 2-0 lead.

Mark Saponara started the third-inning rally for Hunterdon Central with a one-out double to the gap in right-center. Southern starter Pat Barrett induced a ground out back to the mound for the second out and walked No. 3 hitter and catcher Matt Padre.

With two out, Ollwerther slammed a towering shot to center field that carried over the head of Rams center fielder Noah Brown and chased home the tying runs. Ollwerther coasted into third and scored on the next pitch, which Cosentino grounded back through the middle for an RBI single and a 3-2 Hunterdon Central lead.

Saponara struck again in the fourth inning when he fought off a 2-2 fastball from Barrett into left field for a two-out RBI single to chase home Kevin Johnson and make it 4-2. Johnson led off the inning with a single through the middle, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Brian Adams and went to third on a ground out to second base by shortstop Ryan Koep.

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

Hunterdon Central pushed one more run across in the top of the fifth, when senior left-hander Zach Fillmore came on to pitch for Southern. Fillmore surrendered a leadoff single to Collin Mason, then issued three walks to force in a run, with a fielder's choice ground out that cut off a run at the plate mixed in.

Fillmore induced one more fielder's choice and notched a strikeout to limit the damage to one run.

Needing three runs in the bottom of the seventh against Hunterdon Central starter Peter Woltersdorf, Southern started the inning when junior Marcos Matias lined a shot over Saponara's head in center field. Matias, however, got overzealous on the bases and was thrown out trying to stretch the hit into a triple, with Koep firing the relay to third for the first out of the inning.

The baserunning error turned out to be elementary, because after an infield single by Zach Oddo, Woltersdorf induced a game-ending double play. With Wednesday's win, Woltersdorf is now a perfect 19-0 over the past two seasons - 8-0 this season after an 11-0 junior campaign.

"There were times today I thought we hit the ball really well," Cocuzza said. "I thought we hit the ball hard a bunch of times, but that's baseball. You hit a ball hard and they get two outs out of it. But we played well and swung the bats well against a very good pitcher and a very good team."

Koep played a standout shortstop for Hunterdon Central, converting all five of his chances in the field and throwing Matias out at third in the seventh. With one out and a runner on first in the bottom of the third, Koep wisely knocked a line drive by Barrett to the ground, starting a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning instead of settling for one out. He also took a base hit away from Noah Brown to lead off the sixth inning when he glove the ground ball up the middle, spun and fired to first to get the speedy Brown.

Southern's 2017 season was more than just a late-season run in the state tournament. The Rams easily secured a winning season for the first time in more than a decade by finishing fourth in the always-competitive Shore Conference Class A South division. They defeated Shore Conference Tournament champion Toms River North twice during the regular season, earned the No. 3 seed in the Ocean County Tournament, then proved worthy of that seed by reaching the OCT final before losing to Toms River North.

The breakout campaign for Southern came two years after Cocuzza took over late in the 2015 season as interim head coach after previous head coach Tom Natoli resigned after issues managing the NJSIAA innings-limit regulations. The snafu cost the Rams an Ocean County Tournament win over Toms River North in which the Rams upset the No. 1 seed, but used an ineligible pitcher in the game.

Last year, Cocuzza began the process of making the program his and although the wins did not immediately follow, the culture change began with this group of seniors buying into the program as juniors.

"(Cocuzza) came in and made a big difference," Barrett said. "He came in when I was a sophomore and only had six games that first year. Junior year, last year, we got better and we appreciated what he did. This year, we did a lot for him. I really think we made him happy and proud this year."

"There were some things I thought we had to do differently, but the biggest thing was just changing the culture," Cocuzza said. "Guys had to start realizing the work that it was going to take to make this happen. Instead of taking 25 swings once a week, you have to get your 500 swings every week. It's a total commitment and this senior group had played together for a long time and I think once they realized the kind of commitment it was going to take and bought in, I think that really changed for us."


Box Score

Hunterdon Central 5, Southern 2

Hunterdon Cent. (23-5)0031100560
Southern (18-10)0200000260



Hunterdon CentralIPHRERBBSOPC
Peter Woltersdorf (W, 8-0)762214103
Pat Barrett (L, 2-1)45442375
Zach Fillmore11113133
Nick Simone20001232

Top Hitters

Hunterdon CentralGame Stats
Mark Saponara2-3, 2B, BB, R, RBI
Andrew Ollwerther1-3, 3B, R, 2 RBI
Pete Cosentino1-4, RBI
Kevin Johnson1-3, R
SouthernGame Stats
Marcos Matias2-3, 2B, R
Nolan Watson2-3
Pat Barrett1-3
Zach Oddo1-2, HBP




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