Sometimes you just have to hand it to the other team. Howell simply would not be denied.
Even after Hunterdon Central, No. 5 in the NJ.com Top 20, climbed out of a big hole and took the lead, Howell persevered. A team starting its No. 3 pitcher because its top two pitchers were hurt, overcame an opponent with a pitcher carrying a 0.00 ERA into the game.
Howell would deliver the first blow in this heavyweight fight. And the last. There is no truth to the rumor home plate umpire Warren Bennett and his crew demanded overtime pay for every pitch over 200, but they deserved it.
These teams put each other, and their fans, through a meat grinder before Howell, playing in its first group final since 1994, prevailed, 9-8, to take home what more than a few thought was an unlikely NJSIAA Group 4 championship.
“This is an incredible win for this team, our school and our community,” said Howell coach Eric Johnson. “This has been a fun and unselfish group that loves each other.”
Now this Howell team has a memory that will last to the very last of their class reunions, the school’s first group championship in baseball.
It is a Rebel team seasoned by the rugged Shore Conference A North division, which boasts current Group 3 champ Middletown North, 2021 Group 4 champ Middletown South (21-10) and perennial Non-Public powerhouse CBA (18-10).
Howell (25-6), ranked No. 17, came out swinging and set Hunterdon Central and ace Kyle McCoy on their heels with a stunning four-run first inning in which it forced the Maryland-bound lefthander to throw a shocking 48 pitches. McCoy struck out leadoff batter Russ Halvorsen but it took seven pitches to do so.
“I watched his warm-up pitches and got a good look at Halvorsen’s at bat,” said Howell’s No. 3 hitter Thomas Strauch (2-for-4, HR, 3 RBI). “I was locked in going into my at bat.”
McCoy (7-1) walked No. 2 hitter Devon Smith on the ninth pitch of that at bat. In stepped Strauch. McCoy threw six more pitches just to get Strauch to 2-2. Then he threw a fat heater that Strauch deposited over the left field fence for a 2-0 lead. It was Strauch’s 11th home run of the season. The Howell bench and their rabid fans were fully aboard.
It would get worse, but not before a little bad luck would make it an awful inning for McCoy. He walked Joe Zito. Nicholas Todisco singled through the left side and, after a strikeout, Jeremiah Wojenski loaded the bases with a single through the right side.
McCoy then got Nick Gallo to pop one up, but the Howell second baseman placed it perfectly down the left field line for a two-run double and a 4-0 lead. Hunterdon Central had just witnessed a teammate who had been mostly untouched for two years take an unexpected beating. Then they responded.
Jared Cassella and Chase Moskowitz, the Red Devils Nos. 8 and 9 hitters, drew back-to-back walks to open the bottom of the third inning, then leadoff batter Christian Petino was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Howell starter, righty Nick Barravcato, was showing his first signs of command trouble.
Sophomore Mike Contiliano (2-fo-4, 3 RBI) singled home a run and Logan Mason brought home a second run with a fielder’s choice grounder that cut the lead in half. The Red Devils were back in it.
But Howell came knocking again when McCoy issued one-out walks to Halverson and Smith with one out in the fourth to drive his pitch count up to an unsightly 93 pitches. Hunterdon Central coach Kevin Cuozzi had seen enough and replaced McCoy with his No. 2 arm, James Scott. The lefty’s first assignment would be Strauch.
“We had some long at bats,” said the Arcadia-bound Strauch. “We were prepared, knowing this was going to be a big challenge and our last game. This team is special. We know what we can do.”
Strauch didn’t wait long this time, crushing a 1-0 offering from Scott down the left field line for a two-run double and a 6-2 lead. Hunterdon Central was right back in the same hole it had been in three innings earlier.
But Hunterdon Central (25-5), having won 21 of its previous 22 games and, like Howell, carrying an eight-game winning streak into the contest, struck back again. This time it unloaded for five runs in the bottom of the fourth to take its first lead at 7-6. Howell was in its bullpen and the Red Devils were starting to feast.
Howell contributed to the uprising by issuing five walks and hitting a batter. The big hits for Hunterdon Central were delivered by the lefty-hitting Contiliano, who laced an opposite field two-run double to left-center, and Moskowitz, who ripped a double off the left field fence for another run.
Cassella brought a run home on a groundout and Chase Fischer got a little help from Mother Nature when the left side of Howell’s infield lost his high pop in the sun as Contiliano scored the go-ahead run.
But Howell wasn’t done.
Scott walked two batters around a strikeout in the fifth and Cuozzi lifted him for his reliable closer Mason, who was asked for the first time to give his team more than two innings. Mason did pitch well but not before a rough start that included a single by Ryan Bilello that loaded the bases and a two-run single by Halvorsen that put Howell back in front, 8-7.
Strauch caused more trouble before the inning was over, hitting a troublesome bouncer into the shortstop hole. Shortstop Ryan Facinelli snared it and had nowhere else to go but third base. So, he threw it there trying to force Bilello for the third out. Contiliano, however, had ranged to his left on the bouncer and could not get back to the bag quickly enough and the throw got away. Bilello scored to boost Howell’s lead to 9-7.
Mason was pretty clean the rest of the way, but so was Howell’s fourth pitcher in the game, closer Bilello. The lefty would permit one run on one hit over the final 2.1 innings, striking out three and walking one.
Hunterdon Central did threaten in the bottom of the seventh.
Petino stepped in with one out and lofted a mile-high fly deep to left field that easily carried the fence for a home run that trimmed the deficit to 9-8. Contiliano, who led Hunterdon Central in hits (38), RBI (29) and doubles (13), reached one more time, but on a throwing error that allowed him to reach second base.
Hunterdon Central was a single away from tying the game. But Bilello got the cleanup hitter, Fischer, to lift a high fly to center field, where Smith put it away to begin the Rebels’ celebration.
“I knew I was an option today to close,” said Bilella, who would be standing on the mound at the end when his entire team rushed him. “The last out is something I’ll always remember.”
It was a tough pill to swallow for a Hunterdon Central team that had the highest of goals and expectations, but it’s also a club that amassed 48 wins the past two seasons, won two county championships and a sectional title.
“We had too many missed opportunities,” said Cuozzi, whose team stranded 11 baserunners, including the bases loaded in a scoreless fifth. Howell, in fact, gifted Hunterdon Central 12 free baserunners on eight walks and four hit batsman
“They took us off our game plan right away and we had to fight to come back all day,” said Cuozzi.
And McCoy wasn’t his usually sharp, accurate, overwhelming self. “Kyle didn’t have his best stuff,” said Cuozzi. McCoy had allowed just a single run all season and it was unearned. Howell reached him for six runs, five of which were earned, on six hits in 3.1 innings. He struck out six and walked five. He had walked just three batters the rest of the season.
NOTES: The teams combined for an eye-opening 291 pitches, 149 by Hunterdon Central and 142 by Howell. … Howell lost in its only other state final appearance, in Group 4 to Elizabeth in 1994.
… Hunterdon Central was chasing its sixth group title. It won Group 4 championships in 1987, 2008, ‘09, 2016 and ‘18. The Red Devils also reached the Group 4 final in 2017, losing to Millburn.