Quad County Underclassmen games remain a big hit

By Bob Behre | June 29, 2023

Hudson coach Pat Laguerre and Essex coach Joe Sorce share the trophy via a 7-7 tie.

If the success of the NJ Quad County Underclassmen Games is to be measured by the passion exhibited by the players, the event is in very good shape for a continued long run.

What began 13 years ago as a Essex-Union clash has gradually morphed into something very different and, without question, better. Middlesex and Hudson Counties have joined the fray over the years and the event has found a home at Community Park in North Brunswick.

While Bob Smorol, the event organizer and true mover and shaker who makes all the little things happen to pull the Quad County together, these underclassmen games don’t happen without the work of the coaches, many of whom are in the leadership of the newly formed New Jersey High School Baseball Coaches Association.

Add the passion of the players and this event is an absolute can’t miss.

Essex County and Hudson County played to a wild 7-7 tie last night in the 13th edition of the games. While the Hudson boys rallied late, Middlesex rode a six-run second inning to a 12-4 victory over Union.

Tournament MVP plaques were awarded to a player from each team.

Dustin McGuinness of East Brunswick ripped a two-run home run in the first inning to set the tone for a prodigious attack and pitched a scoreless frame to earn the award for Middlesex. A.L. Johnson’s Steven Vigliotti picked up the award for the Union squad after pitching two innings in which he permitted just an unearned run, struck out a batter and walked none.

Joe Haines of St. Peter’s Prep waited until the top of the ninth to wrest complete control of Hudson County’s MVP award when he blasted a three-run home run to center field, erasing a two-run deficit and giving his team a sudden 7-6 lead. Haines also drove in a run with an infield single in the fifth.

“I was in a favorable count. It was 3-1. I knew he was coming back with a fastball,” said Haines, who blasted the offering from Columbia’s Reno Spagnoli to straight away center field. “He threw me a curveball early in the count and then shook off his catcher and threw me a fastball. When he shook off his catcher at 3-1, I knew he was going to the fastball again. I was sitting dead red.”

Spagnoli had a super aggressive windup and he was throwing some heavy heat, but his command was off, perhaps a result of a bit of showcase adrenaline. Spagnoli entered the ninth inning with a 6-3 lead and needed just three outs to send Essex home a winner. But he got himself in deep by walking Andres Jimenez (Memorial), Xavier Clark (Ferris) and Jean Calderon (Union City) to ignite a bases-loaded, no-out rally. Spagnoli then uncorked a wild pitch that scored Jimenez and moved the other two runners into scoring position.

Joe Haines, left, receives Hudson’s MVP award from Bob Smorol, event coordinator.

Haines stepped in representing the go-ahead run. “He’s a great pitcher and he’s going to do big things,” Haines said of Spagnoli, “but he was a little wild tonight.”

Bloomfield’s Evit Dwyer provided little doubt who deserved the award for Essex County when he threw two scoreless innings, permitting a single hit, no runs and striking out six batters in a dominating performance.

“My fastball was there and I had a couple good curveballs,” said Dwyer, underplaying how good his stuff really was in his impressive two innings. “I was able to locate my fastball and that set up my curveball.” That’s more like it, Evit, who was 9-1 for a 20-10 Bloomfield team that reached the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4 final. “You’re pitching in front of a bunch of scouts and you know you’re going two innings, so you can let it go a bit. There’s nerves there, but I think I was just more excited than anything.”

That excitement translated into some mound dominance for the 6-5 junior. He struck out the Hudson side in order, all looking, in the seventh inning. That was important coming after Essex had struck for two runs in the bottom of the sixth to extend its lead to 6-3. He then struck out the leadoff batter in the eighth before Raymond Guerrero (McNair) singled hard to left field. Put that on your resume, Raymond. But Dwyer answered by striking out the next two batters, one on a curveball and the other on a fastball, to end the eighth. Sheer dominance.

Essex did rally in the bottom of the ninth to salvage the 7-7 tie, and very nearly won it if not for one of the weird plays baseball promises to give you if you watch it long enough.

Evit Dwyer, right, receives Essex MVP award from event coordinator Bob Smorol.

After Spagnoli salvaged the top of the inning by settling down and striking out the side around a two-out single by C.J. Santiago (Union City), Essex got busy against Jassiah Vega (Ferris), Hudson’s seventh pitcher.

Vega walked Seton Hall Prep’s Henry Ayers and Millburn’s Matt Weiner followed with a looping single into shallow left-center field. Essex was in business with the potential tying and winning runs aboard with no outs.

Livingston’s E.J. Frayne then dropped down a bunt toward the left side. Vega fielded it and fired to third trying to get the lead runner. But the throw was wide and got away as Ayers raced home with the tying run. Worse for Hudson, both trail runners moved up a base. Then came the play that may have saved Hudson’s hide.

Zach Barron (Columbia) hit a sharp bouncer toward the middle that second baseman Jack Attisano (Bayonne) dove for and deflected toward shortstop. Seeing the deflection, Weiner broke for home. Attisano, however, scooped the ball up neatly and fired home, but a bit wide to the third base side of the plate. But the very athletic catcher Santiago, who had already thrown out two would-be base stealers, reached back and tagged Weiner as he tried to slip by for the first out of the inning.

Vega struck out the next batter but walked Max Garcia (West Essex) to reload the bases. But Vega brought a stunning end to the contest when he spun and caught Barron a bit too far off second and picked him off, ending the game in a 7-7 tie.

Essex pitchers struck out 16, including the side in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Alex Faust of Millburn exhibited a nasty curveball in striking out the Hudson side in the sixth after he first experienced a rocky fifth inning. He permitted two runs, one earned, that inning as Hudson tied the game at 3-3. Singles by Calderon and Haines delivered the Hudson runs.

Max Garcia singled twice and scored two runs in his first two at bats as Essex built a 3-0 lead through three innings. Spagnoli drove in a run in the first with a fielder’s choice grounder and Keigo Fujita (Millburn) walked, stole second and scored on a wild pitch.

Jordan Burwell (Seton Hall Prep) delivered Garcia in the third with a sac fly to left field. Nick Russo (Cedar Grove) put Essex back in front, 4-3, in the fifth when he laced a deep drive into the left-center field gap for a double that scored Erick Thompson (Nutley) from second.

Essex tacked on two more runs in the sixth on an RBI single by Jake Rendino (Montclair Kimberley) and Thompson’s RBI groundout.

Santiago’s infield single scored Jayden Mercado (Ferris) with Hudson’s first run in the fourth.

Middlesex appeared to come to Community Park straight from the lumber yard as the deep squad struck for three runs in the first inning and six in the second to build a very quick 9-0 advantage.

McGuinness followed a one-out walk to Julius Rosado (South River) with his two-run blast and Casey Chiola of Colonia drew a two-out bases loaded walk to force home Matt Kosuda of St. Joseph (Met.) with the third run of the inning.

Jaxon Appleman of Edison led off the second inning with a double that alerted Union that the Middlesex party was just beginning. Kosuda stepped in with two outs and rocked a two-run shot for a 5-0 lead. Sayreville’s Jake Romanello then drew a walk and Ethan Fantel (South Brunswick) singled. Jay Alvarez of South Plainfield followed with a two-run double to extend the lead to 7-0 before Chiola capped the six-run outburst with a two-run bomb.

Union did show some offensive life, scoring a run in the bottom of the second and three runs in the fourth.

Legendary Linden coach Tony Picaro receives Quad County Distinguished Achievement Award.

Luca Vitale (New Providence) led off the second for Union with a double and came around on a sac fly by Summit’s Chris Moglia. Four Middlesex walks and a hit by pitch contributed mightily to Union’s rally in the fourth. Vitale started it again, this time with a single, and he’d score later when Chris Kennedy (Scotch Plains-Fanwood) drew a bases loaded walk. Andrew Kowantz brought home the second run of the inning on a sac fly and Dayton’s Franki Dasti drew a bases loaded walk for the third run.

Middlesex tacked on two runs in the bottom of the fourth to lift the lead to 11-4. After Fantel singled to load the bases, Alvarez brought Kosuda home with a sac fly. Chiola followed with an RBI single, his third RBI of the game.

Old Bridge’s Frank Papeo delivered Yomer Carreras of North Brunswick with a sac fly in the fifth to forge the final margin, 12-4.

Union County coaching legend Tony Picaro was honored in the pre-game with the Quad County Games’ annual Distinguished Achievement Award.

Picaro’s baseball pedigree is impeccable. Where to start with a career in the game that is truly remarkable.

Picaro’s 13 seasons (1978-1990) as Linden’s head coach produced a Group 4 championship in 1979 and Group 3 state titles in 1981 and ‘82. His 1979 and ‘82 Linden teams finished No. 1 in The Star-Ledger Top 20. HIs 1982 team was also the Union County Tournament champion.

Picaro was named Union County Coach of the Year on three occasions by The Star-Ledger. He’s a member of the Union County Baseball Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Linden High School Hall of Fame in 2008. He’s also a member of the State Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Tony is a longtime Cincinnati Reds scout and is considered one of the top youth pitching instructors in the state.

The Quad County Games has been honoring since 2015 men who have given so much to the game of baseball. The previous honorees are the late Rutgers coach Fred Hill (2015), late Seton Hall University coach Mike Sheppard, Sr. (2016), longtime Union High School coach Gordon LeMatty (2017), NJ All-Century Team member Al Santorini (2018) of Union, Edison coach Jim Muldowney (2019), Colorado Rockies scout Mike Garlatti (2021) and legendary Bayonne coach Phil Baccarella (2022).

Quad County Games History: These Underclassmen Games began in 2010 with a 4-4 tie between Union and Essex. It remained a Essex-Union affair through 2016 as Essex rolled to a 5-1-1 advantage. In 2017, Middlesex was invited aboard and very nearly defeated a combined Essex-Union team before falling 8-7.

The Quad County set up began in 2018 and, since then, the teams’ records are Middlesex, at 3-0-2, Essex and Hudson, at 2-2-1, and Union, at 1-3-1.

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