Ridge’s Connor Byrne, right, pitched a perfect game and Brendan Callanan, left, hit a solo home run in a 1-0 Ridge victory over Bernards in the Somerset County Tournament quarterfinals on Tuesday.
How many students from sports-rich Ridge High School will say they were there 10, 20, 30 years from now?
The ones who were really there, at Ridge’s home field in Bernards Township, witnessed a once in a lifetime treat — for players and fans alike.
Senior righthander Connor Byrne pitched a perfect game, striking out seven in a 76-pitch, seven-inning work of art to guide Ridge (9-2) to a 1-0 victory over neighbor Bernards (5-4) in the Somerset County Tournament quarterfinals.
Shortstop Brendan Callanan, the Red Devils’ shortstop, provided the only run his team would get — and require — when he lofted an opposite field home run to right field leading off the bottom of the fourth inning.
Ridge advances to the SCT semifinals where it will face Pingry, a 4-1 winner over Montgomery, at 1 p.m. on Thursday at TD Bank Park, the home of the Somerset Patriots. Bridgewater-Raritan and Rutgers Prep meet in the second half of the semifinal doubleheader at 4 p.m. The SCT final is set for May 9.
The Siena-bound Byrne was typically humble in the post-game, if you discount the ear-to-ear smile, but even he had to admit his curveball was downright nasty.
“I really got my curveball going against Hillsborough last week,” said Byrne, fresh off extricating himself from a mass of humanity near the mound. “It’s taken a big jump. We were going heavy slider before that but since then we’ve been going curveball more to set up the fastball.”
Five of Byrne’s seven strikeouts were looking and four of the Ks came on curveballs.
“Connor’s curveball was outstanding,” said Ridge coach Tom Blackwell. “Backing that up with his velocity and competitive fire and the fact that he was working both sides of the plate sure makes him tough. We needed every bit of it.”
That’s because Bernards’ righthander Evan Hoeckele did such a great job of locking down the Ridge offense with a steady diet of off-speed stuff and well-timed heaters.
Hoeckele, a junior, limited Ridge to one run on four hits in his 96-pitch, complete game effort, striking out nine and walking three. He was most impressive when the pressure was on, stranding two Ridge runners in the second and fourth innings.
Luke Somelofske drew a one-out walk in the second and Byrne, looking to aid his own cause, ripped a double down the left field line as Somelofske stopped at third. Hoeckele then threw seven straight strikes, striking out the next two batters to end the threat.
He was even more impressive in the fourth. Hoeckele walked Julian Kielb after Callanan’s home run just cleared the right field wall, 298 feet away. Somelofske followed with a shot in the right-center field gap for a double that chased Kielb to third with no outs. Nine of Hoeckele’s next 12 pitches were strikes as he struck out three straight batters to escape another jam.
“I just stayed really focused for those at bats,” said Hoeckele, who was quite a chore to deal with considering the accuracy of his slider, splitter and two- and four-seam fastballs.
It was a remarkably paced game, with Byrne putting down 21 straight batters and Hoeckele working quickly, the quarterfinal was completed in a stunning one hour and 13 minutes. No pitch clock needed here.
When Callanan launched a Hoeckele fastball the opposite way and to the shortest part of the park in the fourth, it appeared right fielder Henry Depew would haul it in near the fence, but he ran out of room.
“I’ve never hit one there, except maybe in batting practice,” said Callanan. “I saw the ump give the signal when I got to first base. That’s an awesome feeling, especially right in the middle of the game when we needed a cushion.”
A cushion is what a 1-0 lead looks like when Byrne is dealing. He got an awful lot of soft contact to go with those seven strikeouts as Bernards managed to get just three balls out of the infield.
“When I was warming up I was feeling like it was one of those days,” said Byrne. “I had decent stuff.”
He discovered, around the fifth inning, that it was becoming a really special day.
“I was checking the scorebook to see what their batters had done in previous at bats, when I realized (he hadn’t allowed a base runner),” said Byrne. When he struck out Matt Giunta to start the seventh, any concerns he may have had were gone,
“After that first out in the seventh, I felt like ‘I got it at this point.’ Let’s go to TD Bank!”
Two of the three balls Bernards hit on the line were delivered by first baseman Tyler Helpinstill. His liner down the left field line with one out in the fourth was the first ball hit out of the infield by Bernards and looked very much like a sure double. But left fielder Nick Sellitti made a mad dash to chase the shot down before it found grass.
Helpinstill was at it again in the seventh when, with one out, he lined out hard to center fielder Adam Meiner, who didn’t have to move much to record the next to last out of the game. Matt Falzarano, a sophomore and the son of Bernards coach Jeff Falzarano, had lined out hard to second baseman Matt Shawah for the second out of the sixth.
The final batter, Charlie Gonella, Bernards’ No. 3 hitter, got a barrel on a 1-2 offering from Byrne but his hard bouncer to third was corralled by Somelofske, who fired to first baseman Kielb, setting off a wild celebration in the middle of the diamond.
“His curveball was the thing,” said coach Falzarano. “Tyler hit that liner to left and we centered on his fastball a bit, but he’s a good pitcher with good velo and a nice curveball.”
Bernards had just three seniors in its starting lineup, which is impressive when you consider the errorless game they played and the number of quality at bats they had against a dominant pitcher.
Byrne, by the way, had a no-hitter going through two outs in the seventh inning against Hillsborough last week, but surrendered a single in the 0-0 game to lose the no-hitter. But he won that 16-strikeout, one-walk gem after Ridge rallied for eight runs in the top of the eight to win 8-0.
Ridge, which has certainly had its challenges offensively in the early going, has some help on the way. Andrew Reynolds is expected back fairly soon after missing each of the first 11 games with an elbow injury. Ezra Sadowski, who transferred from Delbarton, becomes eligible after Thursday.
Ridge is in the middle of a killer week. It started with a 3-2 victory over Hunterdon Central on Monday. Next up were the SCT games today and Thursday, followed by the Red Devils’ encounter with high-flying Bridgewater Raritan (11-1) in a conference tilt on Friday. Ridge’s week concludes with a senior night game against New Providence on Saturday at TD Bank Ballpark.
SOMERSET COUNTY TOURNAMENT QUARTERFINALS
Ridge 1, Bernards 0
Pingry 4, Montgomery 1
Rutgers Prep 3, Somerville 2
Bridgewater-Raritan 5, Immaculata 0
SEMIFINALS, Thursday @ TD Bank Ballpark, Bridgewater
Pingry vs. Ridge, 1 p.m.
Rutgers Prep vs. Bridgewater-Raritan, 4
FINAL, May 9 @ TD Bank Ballpark, Bridgewater