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MIDDLETOWN - Middletown South Chris LeMore is a coach who harps on the little things when coaching his team, and it often shows. Even he, however, had admit it was a big swing by his biggest hitter that changed his team's fortunes on Monday against Clearview in the NJSIAA Group IV semifinal at Walter Woods Field.

Senior Joe Stanzione started the comeback in the sixth inning with his second solo home run of the game that cut the deficit to one run, then ended it with a line drive to the fence in right-centerfield that scored sophomore Will Doyle with the winning run as the Eagles came back to beat Clearview, 4-3, to keep their dream of a state championship alive.

"I'll take any kid in my lineup going to the plate, but at that particular time, he was the guy," LeMore said of Stanzione. "That kid has worked so hard on his swing this year. We have been preaching opposite field and right-center and for him to hit two home runs to right and right-center, it is a testament to him and his work ethic."

"I took a step back in my approach and just tried to drive the ball the other way and help my team any way possible," Stanzione said. "I just tried to do my job. I knew with the bases loaded, he couldn't walk me or pitch around me so I just spit on his offspeed pitch and waited for his fastball and tried to go the other way I was seeing the ball well all day, so I knew if I got my pitch, I was going to get the job done."

Middletown South will play in the NJSIAA Group IV final for the first time since 1999 Saturday, when the Eagles take on Montclair for the title at Veterans Park in Hamilton. First pitch is scheduled for 10 a.m., with Middletown South seeking its first group championship since 1996.

Joe Stanzione (left) came through late to deliver Middletown South a dramatic win over Clearview in Monday's Group IV semifinal. (Photo by Paula Lopez)
Joe Stanzione (left) came through late to deliver Middletown South a dramatic win over Clearview in Monday's Group IV semifinal. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

It took a little bit of everything from the team that can do just about anything to win a game, but Middletown South pulled out a breathtaking Group IV semifinal game against the South Jersey Group IV champion that had no shortage of game-turning, defining plays.

Stanzione's swings, however, made the most profound mark. His game-winning hit capped a huge day at the plate for the senior first baseman, who clocked two solo home runs in finishing 3-for-4 with three RBI. Both home runs he hit were opposite-field shots and the second of the two cut Clearview's lead to 3-2 in the bottom of the sixth while breathing life into the Middletown South dugout.

"There are so many things going through my head right now and the thing that just keeps popping up in my head is the second home run that Joe hit," LeMore said. "That really gave the kids a lot of confidence. We were told that we weren't going to score any runs on this kid and for Joe to go in there and have the at-bats he did, he really lifted our spirits and raised our team to a different level."

"As a senior, you never know when it's the last time playing with your friends or when it's your last at-bat," Stanzione said. "We were a little flat, so I was just trying to get us going with something and get some energy back in the dugout."

Once Stanzione cut the deficit to 3-2 with his one-out blast in the sixth, Middletown South immediately mounted a threat, with sophomore Ben Schild lining a single and sophomore Will Christopher dunking in a bloop double down the right-field line to put runners on second and third with one out.

Clearview starter Julian Costa got a big strikeout for the second out and got ahead of junior Evan Wood, 0-2, when the Eagles got bold. Coach Chris LeMore called for a suicide squeeze and Costa threw the ball in the dirt, allowing Schild to sprint to the plate with the tying run when catcher Adam McEvoy could not block it.

"I wasn't going to stand on third base with the tying run on third and not have some kind of execution going on," LeMore said. "I just went for it and it worked. Nobody is expecting a squeeze in that situation, Ben had a huge jump at third base and it was just awesome to see the kids come together."

In the top of the seventh, Middletown South got out of the inning unscathed by improbably throwing three runners out at home plate for the three outs. With a runner on first, Costa slammed a double off the right-centerfield fence and when Schild's throw in from right field sailed over the middle infielders, Cole Fowler broke from third toward home. Middletown South third baseman Matt Pontari, who started the game in left field, was ready, however, and retrieved the ball before throwing a strike to catcher Greg Trezza for the first out of the inning.

"They're familiar with these situations," LeMore said. "We put them in situations in practice to make them respond, but there is no setting up the situation of being in that kind of game and having to make the right play. I just have to credit their mentality, their hard work and their character."

Anthony Charles then singled to centerfield and this time, Clearview did not send the runner toward the plate and Charles went to second on the throw home to set up the Pioneers with two runners in scoring position and one out.

Middletown South pulled the infield up and Doyle fielded the ensuing ground ball hit to him and fired to Trezza for the tag at the plate and the second out.

With runners at the corners, Clearview tried to steal a run by getting caught in a rundown, but sophomore second baseman Joe Bartos kept tabs on Charles at third and threw to Trezza for the third out of the inning at the plate.

"I haven't seen three outs at the plate in an inning, but coming here today, I said to our team they (Clearview) are a mirror image of us," LeMore said. "They do everything that we do and they are going to try to put pressure on you, and our kids responded in the biggest way at the biggest times."

Doyle then led off the bottom of the seventh with an infield single and moved to second on a passed ball. Senior Patrick Eagone then drew a walk and Trezza laid down a perfect bunt that he beat out, with Christopher getting back to third base before Costa's throw behind him could get him out.

Costa then got a big strikeout of Pontari, but he could not find an answer for Stanzione, who laid off a first-pitch curveball and was all over the next pitch - a hanging offspeed pitch on the outer half of the plate.

"I've been here-and-there at the plate lately," Stanzion said. "I've just missed some balls in late situations sometimes. Other times, I'm squaring them up, but they're not falling. Today, I was able to get them to fall."

"He has been taking some good swings lately but the one thing we had on him was he was going after pitches early in the count that we really didn't want him going after," LeMore said. "Today, he got pitches he could drive and he showed everyone in Middletown and the state of New Jersey what Joe Stanzione is all about."

Stanzione has had a quiet state tournament given his big power, with a number of key singles but without the power stroke that has been such a big part of his game this season. He found his power swing leading off the bottom of the second and didn't lose it, even hitting a high fly-out in his second at-bat - a pitch he was just a split second of waiting away from driving over the left-field fence.

Wood earned the win with two scoreless innings of relief behind Schild, who needed 109 pitches to work through five innings. Schild allowed three earned runs - one more than he allowed the entire season to date prior to the game - on five hits and three walks while striking out nine.

Wood also labored through a 24-pitch sixth inning against Clearview's stubborn lineup, but stranded the bases loaded in the top of the sixth before leaning on his defense and overzealous Cleaview baserunning in the seventh. Senior centerfielder Tom DeMarco got Wood out of the sixth with a diving catch coming in to end the threat with the bags full.

Middletown South will take on Montclair for the Group IV championship in the first game of Saturday's quadruple-header at Veterans Park in Hamilton, with first-pitch scheduled for 10 a.m. Schild will be eligible to come back and throw a full game's-worth of pitches, as will Wood and No. 2 starter Matt Pontari - assuming neither pitcher pitches past their required limit before Saturday's championship.

"I have never been there as a head coach," said LeMore, who was an assistant under Marty Kenney Sr. when Christian Brothers Academy reached the Non-Public A final in four out of five years. "The one thing that those kids told me that I'm going to tell these kids is 'business as usual.' Just continue to do what what you have been doing. Keep eating what you're eating, keep drinking what you're drinking and keep believing that you can get a 'W' each and every day."

Box Score

Middletown South 4, Clearview 3

Clearview (17-7)0201000390
Midd South (21-8)01000214112


Julian Costa (L, 7-3)6.1114426110
Middletown SouthIPHRERBBSOPC
Ben Schild553339109
Evan Wood (W, 4-1)24000036

Top Hitters

ClearviewGame Stats
Corey Lyle1-1, R, RBI
Michael Flax1-2, RBI
Jared McKinney1-4, 2B, R
Anthony Charles2-4, 2 R
Cole Fowler2-4
Adam McEvoy1-3
Julian Costa1-4, 2B
Middletown SouthGame Stats
Joe Stanzione3-4, 2 HR, 3 RBI
Ben Schild2-3, R, SB
Will Doyle2-3, R
Will Christopher1-3, 2B
Patrick Eagone1-3
Greg Trezza1-4
Tom DeMarco1-3


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