(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 fourth of six stories on the incredible 2019 NJSIAA Group baseball championships. DiamondNation.com covered each game, including this nailbiter that saw Ridgewood nail down its first-ever Group 4 championship. And we’ll continue Thursday and Friday with the two non-public championship game stories from last June. All six 2019 state championship games were covered by DiamondNation.com).
Working off a razor-thin margin for error for seven full innings, Ridgewood seemed to embrace the drama.
Never did it waiver, flinch or act like the NJSIAA Group 4 final neophyte it was coming into this dead-even contest against South Jersey power Eastern. And every button pushed by its veteran skipper, Kurt Hommen, seemed to bear the type of fruit high school baseball players thirst for.
The Maroons’ starting pitcher Kevin Seitter and relievers Matt Crawford and Sam Favieri recorded one big out after another and Favieri and Anthony Stephan delivered the two runs the Maroons would need to defeat Eastern, 2-1, and erase decades of frustration for the proud Ridgewood sports program.
There will no longer be a zero next Ridgewood’s name and the words NJSIAA Group 4 baseball champions. Ridgewood, after winning the past three North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4 titles, finally broke through to the state final. It then broke the door down and walked off with the coveted championship hardware.
And we can only hope someone has recorded for posterity Ridgewood catcher Brian Skettini’s three-base jailbreak of a dash from home plate all the way to third base after an errant throw of his pool cue dribbler down the first base line in the top of the sixth.
“We had a lot of firsts this year to get over the hump,” said Hommen. “We won our first Bergen County Tournament title, too. We have a special group of kids.
Ridgewood (25-4) pulled off the slick magic trick of winning the BCT and a Group championship, a daily double so nearly impossible to achieve because of the competitiveness of both tournaments and the fact that they slam up against each other, few Bergen County coaches bother dreaming up ways to do it.
Ridgewood defeated perennial Non-Public power St. Joseph (Mont.), 10-7, in the Bergen County Tournament final on May 25, a game sandwiched between the Maroons’ sectional quarterfinal victory over Livingston and their sectional semifinal victory over Montclair. Ridgewood would outscore its six state tournament opponents, 52-5.
Ridgewood struck first in this one and almost before Eastern had a chance to see what it was up against. Dave Kleiman drew a leadoff walk as fans continue to settle in at about 7:15 p.m. for the final of four public finals at Veterans Park’s Bob DeMeo Field in Hamilton. Bret Thompson then drove Cole Boyan’s 1-1 pitch into right field, chasing Kleiman to third base.
That brought up Favieri, Ridgewood’s No. 3 hitter and he nearly busted it right open. But Favieri’s hard shot to left-center was chased down by center fielder Nick Zellner in the gap. It was a terrific play by Zellner but Kleiman tagged and scored easily.
A 1-0 lead in the first inning meant little at that point, considering it didn’t appear runs would be at a premium the way both pitchers had started in rocky fashion.
Seitter, in fact, threw 42 pitches in the first two innings while hitting three batters and walking one. But he’d strand five runners in the two frames and was fortunate to keep the zero on the home side of the scoreboard.
“I had to get used to the mound a bit,” said Seitter. “Once I found my stuff I was okay. Seitter would allow just two base runners, a walk in the third and a two-out single by the Vikings’ Teddy Moos in the fourth, through the fifth.
Meanwhile, the righty Boyan, a crafty righthander if you would, was stifling the potent Ridgewood bats to the tune of two hits through the first five innings. Then the Maroons struck again, with a bit of good baseball fortune, in the sixth.
The righty hitting Skettini came up with one out and hit a cue shot off the end of the bat that bounced aimlessly down the first base side, spinning in counter-clock-wise fashion. Boyan stabbed at it unsuccessfully with his glove, then grabbed the ball and threw it wildly to first. The ball bounced deep into DeMeo Field’s expansive foul territory. Skettini got a clean look at his own fortune and went about taking three bases. He made it without a contested throw.
“I was surprised when I saw the throw get away,” said Skettini. “I just kept running as hard as I could.”
That gave Ridgewood two shots to get the run home and extend its lead from 1-0 to 2-0. Stephan worked a terrific at bat, getting the count full before lofting a just-deep-enough fly to left-center field. Zellner made a heck of a throw but courtesy runner Dan Boucher slid across the plate ahead of it.
“My first two out bats I wasn’t really calm or comfortable,” said the lefty hitting Stephan, the No. 5 hitter. “I was just trying to stay within myself. I got an outside fastball and hit it the other way. I just wanted to get the ball in the air. I was happy to come up in a big spot like that.”
That run would prove critical when Eastern finally got on the board in its half of the sixth.
A.J. Funari drew a one-out walk and stole second with Isaac Fendrick at the plate. Seitter struck out Fendrick looking at a curveball on his 108th pitch and Hommen decided it was time to go to his pen. In came Crawford who walked Mike Bonomo on a 3-2 pitch.
Crawford, trying to keep Bonomo, the potential tying run, close uncorked a wild pick off attempt. The throw went deep into same foul territory on the first base side, allowing Funari to score and Bonomo to race all the way to third base. Ridgewood’s margin for error had just shrunk to 90 feet.
But Crawford, with a flare for the dramatic, struck out pinch hitter Ryne Kremer on a 3-2 pitch to end the threat.
“Matt did a good job for us,” said Hommen. “He just made that bad throw over to first. But he got us to the seventh.”
That’s when Hommen went for his closer, Favieri, who would keep Eastern completely at bay. Favieri went strikeout, groundout, groundout with the top of Eastern’s order in a 10-pitch get-us-outta-here state championship close.
It was a different game than Ridgewood had experienced prior in this state tournament. It had average 10 runs in its first five state tournament games.
“We’d been putting the bat on the ball 1-through-9 and getting eight or nine runs in our state games,” said Hommen. “We stayed together tonight and our kids made history.”
It is Hommen’s first state championship in his 30th season as a coach. He coached 20 years at Tenafly and has been at Ridgewood the last 10. He boasts a 536-256 career record.
Eastern coach Rob Christ brought his school from Voorhees in Camden County its first state title when the Vikings won Group 4 in 2013. This was Eastern’s second trip to a state final.