The first of two exciting days of the NJSIAA baseball championships has produced two Non-Public state champs after an outstanding display of talent conducted their business at Bob DeMeo Field in Hamilton’s Veterans Park.
Don Bosco Prep, No. 4 in the NJ.com Top 20, secured the NJSIAA Non-Public A title and a rightful claim to the No. 1 spot in the Final Top 20 poll with its impressive 5-0 victory over St. Augustine Prep. Ranney, so long a Jersey Shore afterthought in baseball circles, nailed down its first Non-Public B state crown in a 10-1 triumph over Cinderella Immaculata.
Righthander Caden Dana, the Gatorade NJ Player of the Year, put forth a heck of a performance in relief and slammed a long solo home run in the sixth inning to cap the scoring and give the Ramsey school its first state title since 2008. Don Bosco defeated No. 3 Seton Hall Prep in its sectional final and No. 2 Kingsway fell in its sectional final, as well. So, the door to No. 1 has swung wide open for Bosco.
Top-ranked St. Augustine, under the steady hand of longtime coach Mike Bylone, was playing in its sixth straight Non-Public A championship game, but has only its 2018 championship victory over Delbarton to put in its trophy case from that run. Bylone’s boys also won the 2011 Non-Public A title.
Lefty A.J. Gracia shined in a starting role and ripped a home run in the game’s opening at bat to guide Ranney to its first state championship. The school from Tinton Falls in Monmouth County has come from baseball oblivion to sudden prominence under the guidance of former Monroe coach Pat Geroni.
Ranney entered its first state final as the 15th-ranked team in the state and a decided favorite against a 14-12 Immaculata team that had just gotten itself over the .500 mark, courtesy of four straight victories in the North Jersey, Non-Public B field. But the school based in Somerville gave Ranney quite a handful of stress, mostly due to the pitching performance of Josh Thompson. The sophomore righthander limited Ranney to one run over the first five innings to keep the Spartans dead even, at 1-1, with its heavily favored opponent.
But Gracia, whose leadoff home run sent an immediate shot of electricity through Veterans Park, truly shined on the mound. Gracia’s slow recovery from elbow surgery, which cost him the 2021 season, may be completely behind the 6-3, 195-pound junior committed to Duke. He made the most of a season-high 108 pitches, limiting Immaculata to one run on three hits, striking out nine and walking four over 5.2 innings.
“That’s the first time I’ve gone over 90 pitches this season,” said Gracia, who was guided along carefully this season by Geroni.
It was Thompson who created Immaculata’s tying run in the second inning after he jumped on a high Gracia fastball and slammed it into center field for a leadoff single. He took second on a passed ball, moved to third when his girations on second caused Gracia to balk and scored moments later on a wild pitch. Gracia responded to that little bit of sloppiness by permitting Immaculata just one hit the rest of the way.
“It wasn’t my best fastball,” said Gracia, “but I was able to minimize runners with my breaking stuff. It’s been an up and down year for me, but today was totally up.” Indeed it was.
Ranney broke the game open in the sixth when Thompson tired and allowed three runs on three hits and a walk. The back-breaker was a two-out, two-run single by Diego Tavarez that staked Ranney to a 4-1 lead. Jack Tallent had singled off the glove of third baseman Jayson Labrador to bring home the first run of the inning.
Immaculata coach Kevin Cust went to his bullpen after Tavarez’s hit and the Spartans got out of further trouble in the sixth. But that just forestalled Ranney’s final burst toward its first championship. Two more Immaculata relievers could not stem the tide swamping their young team as Ranney struck for six runs in its last at bat of the season to take a 10-1.
Four walks created all the impetus Ranney needed in the seventh as Brett Wehringer and Tallent delivered RBI singles, Glen Cantalupo ripped a two-run double over third base and Lou Spadafora brought a run home with a sac fly.
Gracia left impressed with Thompson. “He was going away, away, away and had a good spinner.” Gracia hit into a double play and walked three times after the homer. “I took what they gave me after the home run. I took the walks.”
Thompson matched Gracia’s 108-pitches in the same 5.2 innings. He, however, allowed four runs, three of which were earned, on seven hits. He struck out one and walked two. Gracia’s home run was actually unearned because earlier in the at bat he hit two foul pop-ups, one to each side of the field, that were dropped.
The Immaculata defense also let a Wehringer’s pop-up fall in short left field, helping to ignite the Ranney rally in the sixth. But Thompson should feel good about the gritty effort he put forth.
“I was throwing fastball, changeup and working the slider off them,” said Thompson, who never seemed rattled by Gracia’s picturesque home run. “I just stepped off, took a deep breath and told myself that was just one run.”
The Gracia at bat in the first was epic in that he saw nine pitches before Thompson delivered a fastball on the 10th pitch that caught too much of the plate. The lefty-hitting Gracia sent it well beyond the fence in right field.
“It’s the first batter of the game and I didn’t want to walk him,” said Thompson. “I wanted to be aggressive. But he’s a legit hitter.”
Thompson and his teammates never cowered and, incredibly, the fearless sophomore would face just two batters over the minimum in the first five innings. Catcher Danny Ferguson gunned down Spadafora trying to steal to end the second and Troy Rabosky was on the front end of double plays to end the third inning and stifle a rally in the fourth.
Rabosky started a 4-6-3 double play in the third and got Immaculata out of a jam in the fourth when he turned Tallent’s line drive into a 4-6 double play.
By the way, Josh Thompson is an Immaculata legacy. His dad, Chris Thompson, pitched Immaculata to the 1995 Non-Public B championship over Gloucester Catholic. The Spartans also won the 2010 Non-Public B championship and lost in both the NP-A final in 1997 and the NP-B final in 1985.
Don Bosco Prep’s performance in the highest profile game of championship week was pretty thorough by any measure.
Clayton Poliey and Dana combined on the shutout, limiting St. Augustine (27-2) to three hits, striking out eight and walking five. Poliey (7-1) got the win despite a bit of a rocky start with his command. To Poliey’s credit, he recovered quickly and turned a shutout over to Dana, fresh off the Ironmen’s three-run rally in the fourth.
“That three-run inning gave me so much confidence to go after it,” said the Kentucky-bound Dana, clocked at 93-94 on his fastball. “I was like, give me the ball.” He wasn’t playing, for sure, as he permitted just a single and a walk and struck out four in three dominant innings closing out the championship victory.
Bosco manufactured their first run after Pablo Santos drew a leadoff walk in the bottom of the first. Santos stole second, moved to third on Allen Hernandez’s grounder to the right side and scored on a wild pitch.
That run would hold through the third as St. Augustine starter Marco Levari, who issued two walks in the first inning, allowed just two hits to go with a total of four walks. Levari turned it over to Holden deJong in the fourth, but the Ironmen pounced.
Dana, the No. 5 hitter, led off and was hit by a pitch. Kevin Jaxel followed with a double to the wall in left-center field, plenty deep enough to allow Dana to race around the bases from first and score for a 2-0 lead.
Nick Locurto then drew a walk before Jack Cannizzaro laid an efficient and effective bunt down the left side to move both runners into scoring position. A.J. Zollo, the Ironmen’s No. 8 hitter, stepped in as the Hermits drew their infield in. But Zollo, impatiently and authoritatively, pounced on the first pitch from deJong and ripped it through the left side as Locurto and Cannizzaro raced home with runs three and four.
“My approach was to just hit the ball hard,” said Zollo. “I knew what the situation called for and that he’d want to get ahead. So, I was looking fastball. He came in with the fastball and I just hit it hard.”
Dana’s dominance on the mound in relief would have been enough, but the 6-5, 225 lefty-hitting specimen had one more special gift for his teammates in the bottom of the sixth. Dana jumped on the first pitch from Andrew Gaines and drove it easily over the wall in right-center for a home run and a 5-0 Bosco lead.
“Caden’s work ethic, preparation and recovery are second to none,” said Don Bosco Prep coach Mike Rooney. “I credit his brothers, (Bosco grads Cullen and Casey) for the work they did with him during COVID. His improvement after COVID was eye-opening. He put on weight when other people were losing weight.
“He just constantly improved. I’ve never seen someone get visibly better from a Friday to a Monday. He went from being a good player to becoming the man.”
Don Bosco has a long and successful NJSIAA tournament history, but it had been a bit of a dry spell for the Ironmen, at least in regard to Non-Public A championships, the most rugged and unforgiving group to navigate in New Jersey. Just ask the Hermits. The Non-Public A history is littered with outstanding teams that fell short at the feet of an equal or superior opponent.
Don Bosco’s last state title in 2008 was an unforgettable one, as the Greg Butler-coached squad went 33-0 and finished No. 1 in both New Jersey and the nation. Don Bosco had made two trips to the NP-A final since 2008 but fell to Gloucester Catholic in 2012 and Christian Brothers Academy in 2015. The Ironman own a total of seven NP-A titles, also winning in 1979, 1986, ‘88, ‘89 and 1994.
Diamondnation.com will be at Veterans Park on Saturday for all four NJSIAA Public championships.