(We are a lot closer to the start of the 2020 high school baseball season than we are to the end of the 2019 season. Still, March 6, the first day of high school baseball practices, is five weeks away. So, here is a quick rehash of what we left behind in 2019 and what we have to look forward to in 2020. We continue today with the fifth of six stories on the incredible 2019 NJSIAA Group baseball championships. DiamondNation.com covered each game, including this nailbiter that saw St. Mary upset Gloucester Catholic in the Non-Public B state championship game. We’ll conclude the series Friday with the Non-Public A championship game story from last June).
The whole underdog thing can be a bit overdone and overrated.
Not in this case.
St. Mary of Rutherford, which last won a group championship in 1997, absolutely rocked New Jersey’s baseball community when it knocked off the Garden State’s longest running success story, Gloucester Catholic, 4-3 in the NJSIAA Non-Public B championship game at Veteran’s Park’s Bob DeMeo Field last night in Hamilton.
Senior righty Kenny Quijiano put forth a remarkably courageous and grinder of an effort on his way to tossing a four-hitter, in which he struck out 12, walked one and hit a batter.
Quijiano filled the zone with strike after strike, challenging Gloucester Catholic’s batters and, remarkably, caught eight of them looking at two third strike curveballs and six two-seam fastballs that tamed the potent, imposing Rams lineup. The Rider University-bound righthander threw 69 strikes and 30 balls in seven high-energy innings.
Gloucester Catholic (20-6) tried to pull off a double steal when Greg Iannelli left first base early with two outs in the sixth and pinch runner Fischer Masters on third. But Quijiano stepped off, fired to second baseman Vin Vargas. Vargas chased Iannelli back toward first then whirled and fired to nail Masters diving back to third.
That gave Quijiano a chance to avoid the heart of the Gloucester Catholic order in the seventh and he embraced the opportunity in grand fashion. Quijiano struck out the Rams’ eight, nine and leadoff hitters in order to close out the Gaels’ third state championship while the Rams fell short in their bid for a third straight Non-Public B title. Gloucester Catholic owns a state record 17 group championships, four in Non-Public A, 13 in Non-Public B.
“We went away from the first-pitch curveball in the seventh and went with the fastball,” said St. Mary coach Dennis Hulse. And Quijiano’s two-seam fastball not only had hop, it had movement. “I think the ump was giving us the outside corner, so we went there with the curveball and used that with Kenny’s two-seamer, which tends to run back into the plate.”
Quijiano wriggled out of major jams in the second and sixth innings and he never seemed to lose his mojo when backed into a corner. Gloucester Catholic loaded the bases with no outs in the second but would score just one run. And the Rams got the first two batters on in the sixth but would again manage just one run.
“I saw they scored a lot of runs in the previous state games, so I was just trying to limit the damage in the second,” said Quijiano. “We ran a few plays and picked them off.”
Lillo Paxia led off the top of the second with a double down the right field line. Hulking No. 5 hitter Luke Lesch followed with a beautiful bunt single down the third base line. At least temporarily distracted, Quijiano plunked Justin Costanza with the next pitch to load the bases with none out.
Iannelli then hit a bouncer in the shortstop hole but Christian Figueroa snared it and fired to Sal Verlingo at third. Verlingo tagged a sliding Lesch for the first out as Paxia scored the game’s first run. But Quijiano would shut the inning down from there.
Tyler Shinn bounced into an unassisted force-out at third before Quijiano stepped off and caught Costanza trying to steal third and got him in an ugly, but effective, rundown that extricated St. Mary (21-9) from the jam.
“That was the turning point of the game,” said Hulse. You could see the energy level rise on the first base side of DeMeo field as the Gaels came to bat in the bottom of the second. Branden Melendez, St. Mary’s No. 5 hitter became the Gael’s first base runner when he drew a seven-pitch walk with one out.
But Gloucester Catholic’s lefty starter Anthony Solometo, a sophomore who had earned the victory in the 2018 Non-Public B final, struck out Eric Bittiger on a slider to appear nearly out of the inning. But Verlingo singled through the left side and Melendez reached third as the ball glanced off the tip of diving shortstop Ryan Nutley’s glove. Solometo, who would throw 39 pitches in the second inning, issued an eight-pitch walk to Angelo Marabello to load the bases. Mekhi Hinds, the Gael’s No. 9 hitter then singled home Melendez to tie the game at 1-1.
Solometo uncorked a wild pitch that scored Verlingo for a 2-1 Gales lead as the other two runners moved up. Christian Figueroa capped the rally when he hit a low liner at the shortstop’s ankles. The low shot seemed to handcuff him and got past him into left field as pinch runner Adam Suchnik and Hinds raced home to extend the lead to 4-1.
Lesch, who blasted a two-run home run in the first inning of Gloucester Catholic’s 10-3 victory over DePaul Catholic in last year’s championship game, became one of the few players in state history to homer in back-to-back state finals. Lesch drove it way beyond the right field wall to shave the deficit to 4-2 with one out in the fourth.
Solometo, a long thin reed of a 6-3 lefty already committed to North Carolina, seems to unravel his body on the mound like Spiderman jumping off a skyscraper. He throws hard and his ball is tough to pick up, but in this outing, his command would betray him.
He issued walks to Bittiger and Hinds in the fourth around a bunt by Verlingo in which Bittiger beat the throw to second. St. Mary had the bases loaded with one out and Rams coach Adam Tussey came to get Solometo, who had already thrown 81 pitches in 3.1 innings.
Righty reliever Tyler Parks got the next two batters and stranded a runner in scoring position in the fifth and sixth innings to give the Rams a chance to come back.
Quijiano’s next big moment came in the sixth when Tyler Cannon singled and Paxia drew a walk to start the inning and put St. Mary on its heels once again. Quijiano very nearly escaped clean. He struck out the imposing Lesch on three pitches, the last a curveball on the outside corner that the big guy could only flail at. He then got Costanza to hit a bouncer right in front of the plate that catcher Joseph Valentine turned into a nifty 2-3 out. Cannon, who moved to third on Costanza’s out, scored on a wild pitch with Iannelli at the plate, shaving the St. Mary lead to 4-3.
Iannelli would draw a walk, but, with Shinn in an 0-1 count, Gloucester Catholic try to steal the tying run by drawing Quijiano’s throw to the middle infield. But Vargas’ throw to third was perfect and St. Mary could breathe again.
Quijiano seemed to carry a new level of energy to the mound in the top of the seventh when he simply overwhelmed the final three batters he would face and, in the process, smashed a 21-year state championship drought.
“Hey, they’re a big team,” said Quijiano. “They’ve steamrolled teams. But we have a good team and we wanted it.”