Middlesex’s Mark Geist drove in the winning run in the bottom of the 13th inning. (Photo John Haddad)
We felt pretty comfortable with an 11-inning scorebook. Then Middlesex met New Providence in the NJSIAA Group 1 championship game at Veteran’s Park in Hamilton.
Apparently unsatisfied with a magically unthinkable finish to its Group 1 semifinal five days early, Middlesex decided to take another run at writing conclusions for Disney movies.
Feel free to slide Mark Geist’s picture next to Bobby Ulmer’s on the Middlesex High School Athletic Wall of Fame. Geist delivered a walk-off single through the left side to score, uh, you guessed it, Ulmer with the winning run in the bottom of the 13th inning to finally defeat gritty New Providence, 4-3, in the Group 1 final.
We’ll call this one, the Blue Jays sixth Group 1 championship, the most adventurous and entertaining of all. It was also the won third state championship in four seasons for Middlesex.
“Wild,” was all Geist could offer initially, still out of breath from the celebration he had ignited with the single on a 1-0 pitch with two outs and Ulmer leading off of third base.
Ulmer, who hit a walk-off grand slam to give Middlesex its “wild” 7-5 victory over Woodstown in the semifinals, drew a walk on a 3-2 pitch from New Providence’s fourth pitcher, Jack DeGeorge, leading off the bottom of the 13th. A.J. West dropped down a sac bunt on the first pitch he saw to move Ulmer to second. Matt Venutolo jumped on the first pitch he saw, too, and bounced out to the right side to get Ulmer to third.
Geist was about to come to the plate when Ulmer said something to Middlesex coach Justin Nastasi, who was coaching third. “Ulmer suggested I talk to Mark,” said Nastasi. “I just called timeout and told Mark he was the guy I wanted in that spot.”
Geist said, “Coach told me he wouldn’t want anyone else in that spot but me and that he loved me.” Then Geist went about putting himself in Middlesex’s “Hero Forever” conversation.
The Group 1 final was still rolling into the 13th inning because New Providence (17-8) was the team that refused to lose in the top of the seventh inning. The Union County school struck for three runs, after two were out, to erase a 1-0 deficit that suddenly put Middlesex (22-4) in a precarious 3-1 hole.
Middlesex starter Raiden Yost had been terrific. The lefthander shut out the Pioneers on five hits over six innings, striking out four and walking one. Yost had squelched a bases-loaded one-out threat in the fourth inning and stranded two runners in the third and a runner on second in the fifth. But it was Nick Bisaccia’s two-out double in the fifth that would provide some foreshadowing for the seventh.
Matt Demareski and James Pazdera, the Pioneers’ No. 7 and No. 8 hitters opened the seventh with back-to-back singles to quickly put Middlesex on its heels. Yost battled back, inducing a pop foul to the catcher and got DeGeorge on a deep fly ball to center for the second out. Then in stepped Bisaccia.
The New Providence shortstop worked the count to 2-2 then ripped a shot down the left field line for a two-run double. Pazdera scored all the way from first base to give New Providence a sudden and stunning 2-1 lead. Yost had reached the 110-pitch limit, actually hitting 111 on his last batter. Righthander Steven Young relieved and surrendered an RBI single to Jason Graham that extended the New Providence lead to 3-1.
The right-handed Graham had started and gave New Providence five steady innings, permitting just one run on four hits in just 61 tidy pitches. It appeared Graham had just made another contribution no one would ever forget in New Providence.
But we should have known Middlesex was not done. The Blue Jays would get another shot after Young settled in got out of the top of the seventh with a strikeout.
Venutolo gave Middlesex a great start in the bottom of the seventh when he led off with an infield hit and took second as the throw to first got away. Geist, the No. 8 hitter, drew a five-pitch walk. Ty Nicolay’s sac bunt moved both runners into scoring position before Young, the leadoff hitter, drew a walk to load the bases. Anthony Long followed with a just-deep-enough fly ball to left that enabled Venutolo to tag at third and score. Ryan Vollmer then jumped on Matt Demareski’s first pitch and lined it into left-center field for a single that chased Geist home with the tying run.
Demareski got Yost to ground to first, sending the game into extra innings tied at 3-3.
Young stayed on the mound for Middlesex and was terrific, shutting out New Providence on three hits over 6.1 innings. He struck out two and walked two in a paltry 65 pitches.
“I knew for us to win I was going to have to put our guys on my back,” said Young (5-1). “I just felt I had to do my job.”
Young first had to survive the top of the eighth, his only rocky inning. The righthander issued back-to-back 3-2 walks to Jeff Policarpio and Bobby Cushing to start the inning. But he got a strikeout, induced a foul pop to the catcher and a groundout to extricate himself.
Young allowed just three base runners through the 13th inning and two of them were erased on double plays. Young, in fact, initiated a beautiful twin-killing in the 13th when he fielded Cushing’s bunt, wheeled and fired to second to start a 1-6-3 double play.
“I don’t normally throw many changeups, but they were working so well and I was getting fly balls with them,” said Young. “And I got a lot of groundballs on curveballs. I totally trusted my defense.”
In the end, it was Geist who was leaning on the support of his teammates and his coach.
“I knew my team was behind me when I came to the plate,” said Geist. “I couldn’t barrel anything up to that point, so I was just trying to hit something hard on the ground and hope it got through.”
NOTES: For a long while it appeared Middlesex’s run in the second inning would stand up. Ulmer led off the inning by hammering a double off the left field fence. He moved to third on West’s fly ball to right and scored on Venutolo’s two-out double to right-center.
… New Providence made a couple big defensive plays, as well, to keep the marathon going in extra innings. Nicolay singled hard off reliever Pazdera’s upper arm leading off the ninth, but catcher Policarpio picked him off first base. … Pazdera went down in a heap when he was drilled by Nicolay’s shot, but got up and would pitch five scoreless innings, permitting just two hits while striking out three and walking three. … New Providence out-hit Middlesex 11-9.
… It was also a very strong defensive game as each team made a single error in the 13-inning contest. … Dean Licari of New Providence rocked on shot off the left field fence in the fourth but just foul. Not to be deterred, two pitches later, Licari laced a double into the right-center field gap.
… Both teams have a long and impressive history in the NJSIAA Group championships, which began in 1971. … Middlesex boasts Group 1 championships in 1990, 2007, ’13, ’17, ’18 and ’21. It also reached the final in 1982, 1998 and 2015. … New Providence won the Group 2 title in 1976 and Group 1 in 1998. The Pioneers lost in the Group 2 final in 1975 and the Group 1 final in 1990, 2004 and ’21. … It was the third time Middlesex and New Providence have met for the Group 1 championship. Middlesex won the first matchup in 1990 and New Providence won the next one in 1998.
Thank you to John Haddad for the outstanding photos in this story!