Hunterdon Central’s Chase Fischer had two doubles in his team’s sectional championship victory.
You may call it an improved focus. Or an advanced maturity. Perhaps you’ll hang your hat on the simple fact that an additional year’s experience provides better results.
Most likely, it is a combination of all the above.
Hunterdon Central (24-4), ranked No. 5 in the NJ.com Top 20, defeated Woodbridge, 5-1, behind lefthander Kyle McCoy’s four-hitter and some critically timed hits to secure the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 championship on Friday in Flemington.
Hunterdon Central will play host to Section 1, Group 4 champion Livingston in a Group 4 semifinals at 4 p.m. on Monday at Hunterdon Central. Livingston upset Passaic Tech, 4-2, to advance.
Essentially the same Hunterdon Central team with similar expectations, lost in the Central Jersey, Group 4 semifinals a year ago to eventual Group 4 champion Middletown South.
“I think we were very inexperienced last year,” said Logan Mason, who closed out McCoy’s gem with 1.2 innings of one run, two hit relief. “I think we knew this year what it would take to get here. Our attention and focus is much deeper.”
Chase Fischer, the biggest masher in a deep Red Devils lineup, is embracing the ride.
“We didn’t make it past the third state game last year,” said the Rider-bound Fischer, who ripped a pair of doubles. “We just want to keep riding the wave.”
The big man atop the Hunterdon Central surfboard is the 6-5, 180-pound Maryland-bound McCoy (7-0), who shut out the aggressive Woodbridge lineup on four hits over 5.1 innings. He struck out 12, walked one and hit a batter as he went to every pitch in his arsenal to keep his season ERA at a stone cold 0.00.
“We expected to see more hard stuff,” said Woodbridge coach Mike Monaco. “But he threw about 50 percent off-speed pitches. He was tough. We knew what we were up against in this section with state powers like Westfield, Ridge and Hunterdon Central.” The third-seeded Barrons (25-7) took out sixth-seeded Westfield and second-seeded Ridge in an 11-inning marathon.
As one would expect from this scrappy, gritty Woodbridge team, it did not capitulate to the top-seeded Red Devils (24-4) and kept themselves in the game to the end, including igniting threats against McCoy in the fifth inning and closer Mason in the sixth.
But McCoy, pitching in just his second game since a two-week layoff due to elbow soreness, was much closer to his old self which we saw before he had discomfort albeit in a dominating performance against North Hunterdon in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex semifinals.
“Coach calls the pitches,” said McCoy. “They were catching up to my fastball, so we went to the off-speed stuff to keep them guessing. I think I threw 15 changeups. That’s the most I’ve thrown all year.”
He did get outs with his trademark nasty slider, as well, but he felt, “it was a little off today.”
Christian Petino led off the bottom of the first for Hunterdon Central with a single, reached second on a fielder’s choice and third on an error. Brandon Padre delivered him with a sac fly to right field to put the Red Devils in front, 1-0.
“You are focused on defense when McCoy is pitching, but you want to get that early lead and put the pressure on the other team,” said Facinelli. “You know Kyle is going to keep the score low.”
It was Nick Ferri’s turn to help manufacture a run in the second inning. The Seton Hall University-bound left fielder drew a leadoff walk, stole second, took third on Jared Cassella’s groundout and scored on a passed ball. Ferri was in the middle of Hunterdon Central’s two-run rally in the fourth that extended the lead to 4-0.
Facinelli ignited that rally, unobtrusively, with a leadoff walk. Ferri followed with a booming RBI triple to center field and he scored on Cassella’s bouncer to the right side.
The sudden four-run lead was huge with McCoy on the mound, but the Woodbridge batters, to their credit, were making him work for every out. The bonus in that was the Barrons were driving up McCoy’s pitch count. And Hunterdon Central coach Kevin Couzzi had no intention in having the recently returned McCoy reach 100 pitches.
“Kyle really worked hard in the off-season on his off-speed stuff,” said Cuozzi. “So, it’s not like today was the first time we went that way. But I wasn’t going to let him get to 100 pitches or past the sixth inning.
That made Hunterdon Central’s tack on run in the bottom of the fifth that much more critical, something they would see more clearly when the Barrons bats sprung to life with Mason on the mound in the sixth.
Fischer doubled with one out in the fifth and Facinelli delivered pinch-runner Andrew Nguyen from second with a hard single into left field that boosted the lead to 5-0.
“I was thinking, ‘be aggressive’ with the runner on second,” said Facinelli, who would come up with two big plays at shortstop in the seventh. “I got a fastball on a 1-1 pitch and took advantage of it. Fortunately our guy on second is fast.”
McCoy entered the top of the sixth at 88 pitches and would leave after striking out leadoff batter Ty Kobylakiewicz on the seventh pitch of the at bat. Cuozzi had seen enough at 95 pitches and went to his reliable closer Mason for a five-out save.
Mason wasn’t sharp at the start and the Woodbridge batters looked like they had been released from hitting prison.
Drew Lukachyk reached on an infield error, a frequent harbinger of state tournament trouble. Then Shawn Kish drew a walk as Mason tried to harness a mid-80s fastball and a darn good breaking ball. But Matt Troche hadn’t the time for Mason’s development and rocked a double over Ferri’s head in left to score Lukachyk with Woodbridge’s first run. Kish raced to third on the hit. Woodbridge was a single away from making things very interesting.
But Mason did harness his heater and get on top of his breaking stuff. He struck out Tyler Weber looking at a very nasty curveball and got Dean Fiore waving defensively at an 0-2 slider to take the air out of the rally.
“I had so much adrenaline rushing through me on those last two batters,” said Mason.
Sophomore righthander Eddy Nunez (8-3, 2.23 ERA), who had gamely kept Woodbridge afloat in the difficult matchup with McCoy, retired Hunterdon Central in order in the bottom of the sixth to give the Barrons one last shot against Mason. Nunez permitted five runs, four of which were earned, on six hits, struck out one and walked two.
The Barrons kept swinging it in the seventh, but Facinelli made sure two of those hard hit balls would only produce outs.
The Barrons’ leadoff batter A.J. Bosch indicated trouble when he singled hard to left field. Brett Lukachyk then hit a screamer at Facinelli, who knocked the shot down on the backhand and tossed the ball to second baseman Chase Moskowitz for the forceout.
“Knocking that ground ball down and getting the first out was big,” said Facinelli. “I think it stopped their momentum.”
Josh Vasquez continued the Barrons’ policy of only hitting the ball hard, but again Facinelli was in the right spot. This time he harnessed the hot grounder two steps from second base, touched the bag and fired to first baseman Fischer for a double play that ignited a wild celebration in the middle of the diamond.
“Now we are playing the group semifinals at home and that is so awesome,” said the Bucknell-bound Facinelli. “We love playing at home and in front of our fans. We feel it gives us a big advantage.”
Woodbridge and Hunterdon Central were dead even in hits, 6-6. Troche and Drew Lukachyk had two hits apiece. Ferri was 2-for-3, scored twice and drove in a run for Hunterdon Central.
NOTES: Hunterdon Central picked up three of its six hits in the sixth inning but Nunez and Woodbridge were able to hold the Flemington squad to one run thanks to a spectacular diving catch by center fielder Fiore, who ranged to his left to snare a rocket off the bat of Brandon Padre. Fiore went flat out to rob Padre of an extra-base hit. That forced pinch-runner Nguyen to hold and when Facinelli and Ferri followed with singles, it would amount to just one run.
Thank you, Marc Padre for the excellent photos above.