Baseball – Wall Slugs Its Way Past Top-Seeded Howell and Into Monmouth County Semifinals
FARMINGDALE -- The short leftfield fence at the Howell High School baseball field can play games with hitter's minds. Just a modest fly ball can get you a home run and all you have to do is commit to hitting the ball in the air to leftfield.
Wall senior centerfielder and leadoff hitter Nick Lovarco didn't take the bait. He has taken it before at other venues, but on Sunday against the top-seeded Rebels in the Monmouth County Tournament quarterfinals, he stayed with the approach that was working and so did the rest of his team.
Lovarco crushed two doubles off the closer-to-standard rightfield fence as part of a 3-for-3, three-RBI game and classmate Andrew Fischer launched a three-run home run to right to highlight a Wall hitting attack that did just enough to top Howell, 12-11, to reach the Monmouth County Tournament semifinals.
"That was a dog fight," Lovarco said. "I wasn't expecting that, but we got the job done. They are a great hitting team. Our pitchers battled and our offense was there today."
Sunday's performance capped a perfect weekend for Lovarco, who was 2-for-2 with a double and two stolen bases in Saturday's MCT win over Monmouth Regional. The senior centerfield got off to a slow start at the plate in 2022, but has heated up in the last week. After entering the week hitting .156 with one extra-base hit (a home run), Lovarco is 8-for-13 with three doubles, two triples, four walks, eight runs scored, four RBI and four stolen bases.
"I changed my whole approach," Lovarco said. "I'm think bigger part of the field, keep my head down and stay within myself.
"We played at Manasquan and I tried to hit home runs over the short fence there and it didn't work out too well for me, so I just blurred all that out and stayed focused on the big part of the field."
As for Fischer, the senior third baseman and Duke University commit did not swing the bat much on Sunday, drawing four walks in five trips to the plate. When he did swing it, though, he landed the biggest blow of the game -- a towering, three-run homer to right that extended Wall's lead to 8-4 in the top of the second inning.
"I got excited there, which is not typical for me," Fischer said of his home run. "I knew they are tough team and the game wasn't over, but we knew we had to score runs. The other at-bats were tough. I wanted to get pitched to and sometimes you start to expand the strike zone late in games, but you just have to be careful and make sure you're swinging at strikes. I was seeing the ball well today and it seemed like I was seeing a different pitcher every time I was up."
Fischer led the Shore Conference with 32 walks in 2021 and entered the walk with only five free passes and no home runs, albeit with a .394 batting average. Over the last four games, Fischer has gotten back to picking out his pitch, drawing eight walks and cranking two home runs.
"I feel great about my approach at the plate," Fischer said. "I like to make pitchers pay for leaving anything over the middle of the plate early in counts. Once I get deep in counts, I know I have other support in the lineup, so I'm not afraid to take my base and give the guys behind me an extra runner to drive in."
Wall built up an 11-4 lead through two-and-a-half innings, spearheaded by three hits, three runs and three RBI from Lovarco during that stretch alone, as well as the three-run home run by Fischer to make it 8-4 in the top of the second.
Lovarco came through with a go-ahead two-run single in the second two batters before Fischer's home run and rocked an RBI double off the right-centerfield fence to make it 9-4 in the top of the third. Sophomore Jake Howlett added an RBI single and senior Colin MacDermant capped the scoring in the third with a sacrifice fly.
"At 11-4, I had confidence, but I didn't think it was over," Lovarco said. "We saw they beat Middletown South 18-13. You put up 13 runs in a game and you lose? That's ridiculous. So we knew it wasn't over."
Howell struck back in the bottom of the third with consecutive RBI singles by its Nos. 7, 8 and 9 hitters: sophomore Braden Walsh, senior Jeremiah Wojenski and senior Nick Gallo.
The Rebels erased the deficit entirely with four more runs in the fourth. Walsh ripped a two-run double, followed by an RBI double by Wojenski to make it 11-10. Junior Russell Halvorsen -- who went 4-for-4 with two home runs in Saturday's round-of-16 win over Middletown North -- tied the game with an RBI single through the middle.
Both teams found some stability on the mound once the game was tied up, with Wall sophomore T.J. Legere getting out of trouble in the fourth and pitching scoreless frames in both the fifth and the sixth -- including the game's lone one-two-three inning in the bottom of the sixth on just six pitches.
"They left a lot of guys on base and seeing T.J. pitch a one-two-three inning right there was huge," Lovarco said. "That's when we started to think, okay, we got this game, because we were coming back to the top of our order."
Dillon McKenna pitched a scoreless fourth for Wall, but walked gingerly off the field after the final out of the inning and did not return. Nick Barracata took over and put up zeroes in both the fifth and sixth innings. A walk and a Jake Howlett double set up Wall with runners on second and third and none out in the fifth, but Barracata bookended a popup with two strikeouts to get out of the jam.
Howell blinked first in the late innings, with MacDermant leading off the seventh with a single and heading to second on a sacrifice bunt by senior Jerry Winchester. An error gave Wall runners at the corners and senior Nick Colbert made Howell pay with a deep flyout to right that scored MacDermant with the winning run.
After Legere hit the first batter of the Howell seventh, Fischer took the ball and hit another batter on a 0-2 pitch. Howell moved both runners up with a sacrifice bunt by senior Nick Todisco, but Fischer struck out the next two hitters on six straight fastballs to seal the win.
"I took a walk around the mound and all of my infielders were looking at me and I just knew there was no one else they wanted on the mound," Fischer said. "I'm just thinking, 'Okay, I'm the man here. I'm a senior and I have to step up.'
"I trust my catcher too. Jake Howlett is only a sophomore, but he calls a great game and he wanted me to throw fastballs there. He saw something and I trusted him with it."
Fischer has emerged as Wall's closer and, arguably, its best overall pitcher. It is only a sample of 7 2/3 innings, but Fischer leads Wall in appearances (six), ERA (0.91), WHIP (1.04) and strikeouts per seven innings (10.04).
Wall is only three years removed from winning the 2019 NJSIAA Group III championship, but this group of seniors was not a part of that varsity roster and only had last season to begin its own legacy within the Wall program. With longtime assistant Jim Rochford taking over as head coach last season for the now-retired Todd Schmitt, Wall won a share of the Shore Conference Class B North championship, but came up empty in the postseason tournaments.
The Crimson Knights lost in the quarterfinals of both the Shore Conference and NJSIAA Central Group III Tournaments and were eliminated by Howell in the first round of the Monmouth County Tournament, which ended their 2021 season.
"A lot of people ask me about what my goals are for the (MLB) Draft and what my goals are for college and things like that and my answer to that is, 'I'm ready to win a state championship right now,'" Fischer said. "I'm looking at eight other guys out there with me and they want the same thing."
Wall 12, Howell 11
|T.J. Legere (W, 1-0)||2.2||0||0||0||2||1||51|
|Andrew Fischer (SV, 2)||1||0||0||0||0||2||13|
|Nick Barracato (L, 0-1)||3||2||1||0||3||4||59|
|Nick Lovarco||3-3, 2 2B, 2 BB, 3 R, 3 RBI|
|Andrew Fischer||1-1, HR, 4 BB, 2 R, 3 RBI|
|Jake Howlett||3-4, 2B, RBI|
|Colin MacDermant||2-4, R, 2 RBI|
|Gabe Cavazzoni||1-3, 2 HBP, 2 R|
|Jackson Coan||2-5, 2B, 2 R|
|Nick Colbert||1-4, R, RBI|
|Jerry Winchester||1-2, 2 BB|
|Jeremiah Wojenski||2-4, 2B, 2 RBI|
|Braden Walsh||2-5, 2B, R, 3 RBI|
|Russell Halvorsen||2-5, 2B, R, RBI|
|Nick Gallo||2-4, RBI|
|Joe Zito||1-4, 2B, R, RBI|
|Nick Todisco||1-1, 3 BB, 3 R, RBI|
|Thomas Strauch||1-3, BB, HBP, R, RBI|