Nothing spells out the words fear, trepidation and panic like a four-run deficit after one half inning of a state championship game.
But Pequannock subscribed to none of the above, instead just playing baseball like it has played baseball all season, with intelligence, passion and boundless aggression.
The Panthers overcame that early four-run challenge, striking for four runs of their own in the bottom of the second inning and adding a run in the fourth that somehow stood up to constant pressure from Buena on the way to a 5-4 victory and the NJSIAA Group 1 championship.
It was Pequannock’s third group championship. The Morris County school won Group 2 titles in 1988 and 2009. The Panthers also fell in the 1995 Group 1 final. Buena was making its second appearance in a group final, having won Group 1 in 2014.
Pequannock (26-5) managed a single extra base hit in the game, a critically important double in the fourth inning by Donovan Cassel, but found a way with some help from Buena and its own gritty at bats at Bob DeMeo Field in Hamilton.
Pequannock starting pitcher Joe Sabbath and catcher John Vanaria proved an outstanding battery in the sense that Sabbath survived an awful first inning to give the Panthers 5.1 otherwise solid innings, and Vanaria, without the benefit of a hit, drove home the game’s tying and winning runs.
The righty Sabbath permitted four runs on seven hits, struck out six, walked one and hit a batter, but allowed just three hits after the first inning.
“I came out a little flat,” said Sabbath, the 6-2, 190 Rhode Island commit. “I had no curveball. I was practicing my curveball during my second inning warm-ups and finally got it back.”
Just like Pequannock coach Jon McBurney drew it up.
Pequannock’s go-ahead rally in the fourth inning originated at the very bottom of its batting order as No. 9 hitter Aaron Goldberg led off with a pop single into shallow right field. Cassel followed with a booming double deep down the left field line to chase Goldberg to third base.
The senior Vanaria stepped in and battled Buena righty Joey Kurtz, fouling off a 1-2 pitch before hitting a bouncer to the left side. Goldberg raced home with the go-ahead run as shortstop Tre Carano wisely threw to third base to nail Cassel trying to move over on the grounder.
“In that spot, you’re just trying to put the ball in play and make things happen,” said Vanaria. “I was just trying to get a pitch in the zone I could hit.” Vanaria got just enough of the barrel on the ball and delivered a run that will link him forever to his team’s state championship.
Sabbath then singled, but Kurtz got the next two batters to keep his team’s deficit at 5-4. That one-run tightrope walk would last three more Buena at bats, keeping the Pequannock faithful on edge.
“You could see Joe getting comfortable after the first inning and settling down,” said Vanaria.
Sabbath would get a whole lot more comfortable after Pequannock struck for four runs, only two of which were earned, in the bottom of the second to tie the game at 4-4.
Tommy Lyon, Pequannock’s No. 6 hitter, reached second on a two-base throwing error with one out in the second. Kurtz then hit Jack Picardo with a 1-2 pitch and plunked the next batter, Zach Laubach, with his first offering to suddenly load the bases. Up stepped Goldberg, the intrepid No. 9 hitter who, perhaps, deserves his own headline in this story.
Goldberg grinded out a seven-pitch walk to force home the Panthers’ first run of the game. Goldberg’s at bat, clearly, defined this gritty Pequannock club as much as Cassel’s clutch double or Vanaria’s intelligent at bats.
Speaking of Cassel, the Panthers right fielder then took Kurtz to a sixth pitch before he lined a single into right field to score two runs and draw his team to within a run at 4-3. Vanaria stepped to the plate, still with one out, and hit a bouncer to shortstop that brought Goldberg home with the tying run.
“There’s a team dynamic there,” said Vanaria. “We get along. We grew up together and want to win for each other.”
Sabbath, the No. 3 hitter, followed with his first of two singles in the game, but Kurtz got out of it from there.
It was now up to Sabbath and, eventually the Pequannock bullpen to preserve the 5-4 lead
Pequannock would get runners aboard in the fifth and sixth innings, a bloop single to right field by Laubach and an infield hit by Vanaria in the sixth, but Buena reliever Austin Wocock kept the Panthers off the scoreboard.
Buena (27-4) would strand two runners aboard in the fourth inning and one each in the fifth and seventh innings.
Alan Adkins slashed a double to left-center leading off the fifth to put Buena in position to take the lead. Sabbath struck out the next batter but slipped and fell chasing a chopper back to the box by Wocock. Adkins sped to third and Wocock was safe at first.
Sabbath, however, beared down and struck out Carano looking and induced Ryley Betts to fly out to center field.
Cole Shover singled to center to start Buena’s fifth inning, but Sabbath again reached back and got a strikeout, a pop out to second base and a fly out to right field. The fly out, though, was no picnic, as right fielder Cassel raced in after the shallow fly, dove and snared the nugget just before it hit the ground for the third out.
There was still much work to be done in the form of six outs, and Sabbath was running out of his 110-pitch limit. The senior struck out Adkins on seven pitches leading off the sixth as his pitch count hit an even 110. In came sophomore reliever Nick Werner.
Werner, with a bit of an odd, over-the-top windup, showed an electric fastball and a nasty curveball, striking out Buena’s Nos. 8 and 9 hitters on just seven pitches.
Three outs to go. And it would be against the top of Buena’s batting order.
If the Pequannock faithful had visited the Veterans Park food trucks, their meals could not have been settling well.
Werner hit Carano with a 1-0 pitch to put the tying run on first base in the top of the seventh. Betts then hit a 2-1 pitch to the right side for a fielder’s choice that moved Carano into scoring position. Buena would have two shots at getting him home.
But Werner seemed to regain the edge he had in the sixth. Shover, the No. 3 hitter, did barrel up a 2-2 fastball but the liner died in the glove of left fielder Ryan Foley. Werner wasted little time with the last batter, striking him out on three pitches to finally pop the cork on the pressure cooker and ignite the celebration.
Vanaria ended the game with the ball in his hands after ably guiding two impressive arms to the promised land.
“Me and John are best friends,” said Sabbath. “We’ve been doing this for a long time. It was just me and him playing catch.”
All the way to a state championship for Pequannock.
NOTES: Buena’s four-run rally in the top of the first threatened to put Pequannock in a hole it could not climb out of.
…Tre Carano led off the game with a grounds rule double that bounced over the center field fence. Betts singled him to third and Shover drew a walk to load the bases. Sabbath hit Zach Strause with a pitch to force home the first run of the game. Aiden Carano followed with a slow bouncer to the left side that went for an infield hit and another run. Charlie Saglimbene hit a slow bouncer to third base that went for another infield hit and a third run. Carano scored on a wild pitch to lift the lead to 4-0. There were still no outs.
…Sabbath recovered, getting a strikeout, before Zach Straus, on third with one out, was caught in a rundown when Brandon Strause attempted a suicide squeeze bunt but missed the offering. Strause then bounced out to shortstop to end the rally.
…All four Pequannock runs were scored by its Nos. 6-through-9 hitters. Goldberg, the No. 9 hitter, scored twice and drove in a run with his bases-loaded walk.
…Buena coach Tom Carney is a veteran of the South Jersey baseball wars, compiling a 397-210 record during stops at St. Joseph (Hamm.), Delsea and Buena. He’ll join the exclusive 400-win club next April.
…Kurtz permitted five runs, three of which were earned, on five hits over four innings. He struck out four and walked two.