Eric Axelsen came to the plate with an opportunity of a lifetime. It was as if he had just found a stash of gold nuggets but needed a way to get them home safely.
The biggest nugget was Ryan McGinnis standing on third base representing the winning run and Voorhees’ first-ever baseball state championship. The main issues were the two outs on the scoreboard that read the bottom of the seventh inning and relief pitcher Joe LoPinto’s nasty curveball.
“He threw me three curveballs in a row,” said Axelsen, “and they were very solid curveballs. I was looking for a fastball and I got one.” It was as if someone had opened the door to the vault that contained the NJSIAA Group 2 championship trophy.
Axelsen slashed the 3-1 fastball through the shortstop hole into left field. As he reached first base he glanced back to watch McGinnis cross home plate into Voorhees baseball glory. Voorhees had rallied for two runs in its last at bat to stun Hanover Park, 3-2, and cap a remarkable 25-4 season never to be forgotten in the hills of Hunterdon County.
“If he threw me more curveballs, I think it would have been a different story,” said Axelsen.
Dominic Rizzolo had put Hanover Park in front, 2-1, in the top of the fourth on a single down the left field line that scored Mike Filipone from second base. Filipone, who had a terrific day at the plate, beat out a slow roller to the left side for an infield hit leading off the fourth. Starting pitcher Jon Peterson bunted Filipone to second before Rizzolo followed with his clutch single.
The 6-2, 180 lefty Peterson had been very difficult on the potent Voorhees lineup, limiting the Vikings hitters to one run on just two hits over the first six innings. Voorhees had scored 36 runs in its five previous state tournament games. Peterson, pitching to contact and relying on Hanover Park’s strong defense, had walked four and struck out one. The Monmouth University-bound senior has touched 87 with his fastball. There was no reason to think he wouldn’t close out Voorhees in seventh as the Vikings sent their Nos. 6, 7 and 8 batters to the plate.
And Peterson got an important out when he induced leadoff batter Chris Quartuccio to pop out to second base. Quartuccio had been in the middle of so many Voorhees rallies this spring. But Peterson, approaching 90 pitches, walked Ben Crescenzio on a 3-2 pitch. McGinnis, 0-for-2 to that point, then swung at Peterson’s first offering and lofted a fly to shallow left that dropped in for a single, as Crescenzio stopped at second. The Voorhees side was now near bedlam.
But Peterson attacked No. 9 hitter Jeremy Jordan, who missed on a first-pitch bunt attempt, and struck him out on three pitches, pushing Voorhees into a two-out corner.
But that brought up leadoff batter Truman Richter, the Voorhees starting pitcher who had to leave with elbow soreness after just two innings. Richter was 0-for-3 as he stepped in with the weight of a season and Voorhees history on his shoulders.
“I was trying to bunt our No. 9 hitter to get to Truman and give him a chance,” said Voorhees coach Cory Kent. While the junior lefty Richter (8-1) will be pitching in college for Virginia Tech, he batted .332 this season and is an aggressive, fearless and speedy leadoff hitter.
“He threw me a changeup on the first pitch of the game, so I was looking for one again,” said Richter. “I’m trying not to strike out there, honestly, and just help my team.”
Richter got that first-pitch changeup and jumped on it, drilling it down the left field line for a double that scored Crescenzi with the tying run and chased McGinnis to third. “Last inning comebacks are the best,” said Richter. “This was a dream comeback. It was a crazy game, start to finish.”
Peterson left at that point with 97 pitches and LoPinto entered for his fateful encounter with Axelsen.
Voorhees is not in position to win in the seventh, though, if not for the relief effort of Cole McGourty (8-1), who permitted just one run on four hits over the final five innings, striking out three and walking two in a tidy 66 pitches. McGourty had been an absolute bulldog offensively from the cleanup spot in the Voorhees order, batting .414, and as the team’s gritty No. 2 pitcher this spring.
“Cole is our middle linebacker in football,” said Kent. “He’s a very tough kid.”
Filipone brought Michael Lagravenis home in the top of the first with a sac fly as Hanover Park scratched out a run with the help of Richter’s throwing error on LoPinto’s sac bunt. The lefty looked much sharper in the second when he threw just 11 pitches in a 1-2-3 inning. But after McGourty led off the bottom of the inning and grounded out, he was told to head to the bullpen.
“I came walking toward the dugout and coach (Evan) Vaccarella yelled to go down and throw,” said McGourty. “So I got in the pen. I felt really good when I got on the mound. My two-seamer had a lot of movement and my slider, which is always a key for me, was there, too.”
Meanwhile, Voorhees had tied the game at 1-1 in the second when Peterson uncorked a wild pitch with courtesy runner Christian Aponte on third. Matt Klumpp had started things by drawing a one-out walk. Aponte stole second and reached third on Quartuccio’s fielder’s choice grounder.
McGourty stranded five runners in his five innings of work, but critically, his teammates cut down two Hanover Park runners at the plate.
Lagravenis singled off the pitcher’s rubber leading off the fifth and reached second when McGourty’s pick off attempt got away. LoPinto bunted Lagravenis to third, but second baseman James Mueller would throw him out at the plate trying to score on Dylan O’Donnell’s bouncer to the right side. The call at the plate could have gone either way as catcher Klumpp got Lagravenis with a quick swipe tag.
Filipone led off the sixth by rocking a 2-2 fastball from McGourty off the left field fence for a double. Peterson bunted him to third but Filipone was cut down at the plate by shortstop Owen McComb’s throw after he fielding Rizzolo’s bouncer.
“They were a very solid defensive team,” McGourty said of the Hornets. “They put a lot of pressure on us. We knew we couldn’t just put the ball in play. We had to get hits. I knew what we were capable of.”
It looked like for quite awhile like the game may have been called off due to a thunderstorm approaching Veterans Park in Hamilton as the Group 1 final was heading into extra innings. Both teams had arrived by about 2:30 p.m., an hour and a half ahead of their 4 p.m. first pitch and sat through what was essentially a full game as Middlesex and New Providence didn’t settle things until Middlesex won in walk-off fashion in the bottom of the 13th inning.
By then, the weather had further deteriorated and the game was pushed back to a 5:45 p.m. start. The 7 p.m. Group 3 final was pushed to Sunday. Both coaches and teams had to deal with that distraction and a fairly frequent rain drizzle throughout the game. It was even worse for Voorhees’ Kent, who had to deal with the loss of his starting pitcher to injury after just two innings.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I thought we were snake-bit today,” said Kent. “But we lived through some adversity already in the Rumson game and that experience helped us.” The Vikings defeated Rumson, 10-7, in the Central Jersey, Group 2 semifinal but not before the game was suspended due to a late afternoon thunderstorm.
“It was a long season and our guys bonded, stayed together and got better every step of the way,” said Kent.
NOTES: Hanover Park coach Doug Wear and Filipone’s dad, Joe, played for the Hornets’ 1997 Group 2 championship team. … Hanover Park also won the 2006 Group 2 title and lost in the 1990 and ‘03 finals. The ‘97, ‘03 and ‘06 Hanover Park teams were guided by the late Dave Minsavage, who just entered the NJ State Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame posthumously … This was Voorhees first appearance in a group final. … Kent is just 31 but has already completed his eighth season at Voorhees. His eight-year run to state championship glory incredibly began with an 0-19 season in 2014.
… Voorhees won its first 12 games of the season and its last 10. It’s four losses were by a total of five runs. Hanover Park lost its season opener then won 11 straight games. Like Voorhees, it had a three-game losing streak in the middle of the season, then won six straight before the championship game loss.