Millburn won its second sectional title in three seasons.
Millburn gave its horse, Steven Echavarria, an early lead and seemed to take advantage of every opportunity North Hunterdon offered on the way to a 7-0 victory and the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 championship in Millburn.
It was the second sectional title in three seasons for Millburn (27-3), No. 3 in the NJ.com Top 20. It was a tough end to a memorable season for No. 20 North Hunterdon (18-7), which stunned then-No. 1 and undefeated Cranford in the semifinals on Tuesday.
“Their kid was impressive,” said North Hunterdon coach Derek Yocum. “We had a good season, 18 wins. What a good group.”
Millburn advances to the Group 3 semifinals and will travel on Monday to the winner of the Section 1, Group 3 final pitting Montville at Morris Knolls. The four public Group championship games follow on Saturday, June 10 at Veterans Park in Hamilton.
Echavarria (8-1) was terrific in shutting out North Hunterdon on three hits over 6.1 innings, before tiring near the end of a 98-pitch effort in scorching 92-degree temperatures. The senior bound for Florida, struck out eight, walked four and put on an impressive show for the horde of scouts on the hill behind home plate.
“Steven is the hero of the day while being the most humble and nicest kid I’ve ever coached,” said Millburn coach Brian Chapman, less consumed with the details of the game than the joy his 14 seniors have given him the past three seasons. “This group broke into the varsity as freshmen and sophomores and it’s all coming to fruition now.”
Chapman’s seniors have been part of an outstanding run of success at the Essex County school. The 2021 team went 19-7 and won the North 2, Group 3 title. The 2022 Millers (25-7) were leading heated rival Cranford, 5-1, in the sectional final but fell, 10-8. And this sectional title winner and its 27-3 record bring the seniors’ three-year record to 71-16.
“Being in three straight sectional finals and winning two makes it even more special,” says Chapman. “They are certainly one of the most enjoyable groups of young men we’ve had here.”
It was quite a day for Echavarria, who learned in the morning that he had been named the New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year, an award that honors what the company views as the top performer in New Jersey.
“We tried to surprise him with it in school,” said Chapman. “We brought some of the guys together and told him he won the award. Steven said, ‘I know. My mom told me this morning.’”
Echavarria may be humble and happy to keep his achievements to himself, but there was no hiding what he did today in front of a home crowd that may have approached 1,000.
“My fastball and slider were both fine today,” Echavarria said. “I threw one changeup that didn’t get the batter to bite.”
North Hunterdon’s Wyatt Demeo led off the game and ripped a 1-1 pitch from Echavarria into right field for a single. The Lions, shining in Yocum’s first season, would not get another hit until Chris Sands singled to left leading off the sixth inning.
But Echavarria did battle a bit early with his command, issuing three of his four walks in the first three innings.
“I was trying to find my zone early and I wasn’t always getting the low strikes,” said Echavarria. “Once I found my spot I was fine.”
Jack Meyerowitz, Millburn’s No. 9 hitter, put the Millers on the board in the second inning when he delivered Greg Rosenthal from second with a two-out single to center. Shai Abbot started the rally with a one-out walk, but his courtesy runner, Jake Goldman, was out at second on an unusual 9-6 force-out that robbed Rosenthal of a hit. Rosenthal ripped a liner to right that Alex Turner caught at his toes on a short-hop. Golden had to hold up to be sure the ball fell for a hit. Turner, however, alertly fired to second for the force out.
But Rosenthal quickly stole second to set up Meyerowitz for the RBI.
Millburn struck for three runs in the third to give Echavarria a 4-0 cushion before stretching the lead to 7-0 with a three-run fifth.
Keigo Fujita led off the third and reached on an infield error. Echavarria drew a walk and Fujita and Echavarria’s courtesy runner, Peyton Conn, moved up a base on a wild pitch by North Hunterdon’s starter Eddie Appollina. Cleanup hitter Alex Wilson stepped in and seized the opportunity.
“He was fastball dominant,” said Wilson of Appollina. “I got into a hitter’s count and I expected a fastball and got one. I just hit a simple liner to left field. Getting that early lead was big. I know (Echavarria) wanted that.”
That brought home two runs and Wilson made it all the way to third base as the throw from left field ended up in the Millburn dugout. Ethan Axelrod, who would factor big in the fifth inning rally, then got good wood on a shot to center field that was plenty deep to enable Wilson to tag and score from third for a 4-0 lead.
Four runs appeared plenty with Echavarria looking better every inning, but Millburn gave him three more in the fifth.
Wilson drew a leadoff walk and raced to third when Axelrod followed with a double just inside the left field line. Matt Weiner then stepped in and stroked a deep shot to right field near the fence that went for a two-run triple and a 6-0 lead. Rosenthal capped the rally with a bouncer to short that scored Weiner from the third for a 7-0 Millburn advantage.
Chapman had arms warming up before Echavarria took the mound in the sixth, but the 6-2, 180 righthander retired North Hunterdon in order after Sands’ leadoff single. He had thrown a tidy 80 pitches through six.
“We felt good with 80 there,” said Chapman. “Chris (assistant Drechsel) said to me, ‘If Steven gets near 100, we should pull him.’”
Nick Hernandez led off and reached on an infield error. Turner then reached on a one out infield hit before Echavarria walked No. 9 hitter Max Delia on his 98th pitch to load the bases. Chapman came right to the mound and called on reliable closer Henry Jacobs.
“It was pretty hot. Maybe I was a little fatigued there. But I could have finished it if needed,” said Echavarria. “But Henry took care of business.”
Jacobs, who has not allowed an earned run in his 10.1 innings this season, got Demeo to pop up high to second baseman Rosenthal and caught Sand looking to end it and ignite the celebration.
“We are so close as a team,” said Wilson. “We have 14 seniors and seven of us start. We’ve been playing together since we were like seven.”
Millburn won state Group 4 championships in 2015 and ‘17 under Chapman’s direction.
Echavarria sounds like he’d like a piece of hardware like Millburn brought home in 2015 and ‘17.
Asked if wins after the section title were gravy, Echavarria said, “What’s ahead of us is more important. Actually today was the gravy but the main course is yet to come.”
NOTES: Millburn is such a baseball town it warms the heart. In the post-game, a couple dozen Little Leaguers and younger were crowded near a short fence at one end of the Millburn dugout, baseballs in hand, waiting to get autographs from the Millburn players. Of course, the Millers happily complied, many signing autographs of any kid that wanted one.
…North Hunterdon freshman Alex Famolari, who plays on the Diamond Jacks Super 15U team out of Diamond Nation and is committed to Duke, went 0-for-3, reaching on an error in the first inning. Famolari, though, had a terrific freshman season, batting .342 with 25 hits and he led the Lions with 21 RBI.
…Robert Schneider and Fujita each had a single for Millburn. … Both teams had 8 hits and committed 2 errors.