Morris Knolls’ Mike Simone has a welcoming committee after after his 2-run HR in the fourth.
When you surrender three errors to the first three batters of the game in the hyper-electric atmosphere of a New Jersey state baseball final, you are not asking for trouble. You are begging for it.
But sometimes in the process of creating a new history for your school, you must go through a bit of purgatory before reaching baseball heaven.
Buried in a 3-0 hole of its own making, upstart Morris Knolls blasted its way out of its temporary baseball hell with an offensive onslaught and a pitcher who refused to be denied.
Hand righty Joe O’Toole kudos for a victory earned on sheer guts and the Golden Eagles’ lineup a major assist for ensuring that win with an aggressive and fearless approach at the plate.
Michael Simone hit a home run and drove in five runs, shortstop Luke Dickerson put on the kind of two-way show that makes pro scouts drool, and O’Toole gave his teammates six gritty innings on the mound as Morris Knolls defeated Mainland, 9-3, to secure the NJSIAA Group 3 championship and its first-ever group championship in baseball.
Morris Knolls (21-10-1) had been to a state final just one other time, falling to Steinert of Hamilton in the 1999 Group 4 championship game. So, perhaps, it was appropriate that the school from Denville in Morris County would win its first state title at Bob Demeo Field in Veteran’s Park in, yes, Hamilton.
Unranked Mainland (14-14), on a magical run of its own, had one previous state final appearance to its credit, as well, and that was a successful one. The Mustangs defeated Mount Olive in the 2014 Group 3 final. Mainland is in Atlantic County and draws students from the Linwood, Northwood and Somers Point communities.
Morris Knolls, on Saturday, was drawing from strength, mostly a sturdy Morris County, NJAC and independent schedule and some big late season victories, none bigger than its 12-0 shutout of then-No. 3 Millburn, for a moxy that was evident.
Simone, as big a hero as they come in a state final, started his and his team’s game inauspiciously. He mishandled a tough grounder by Mainland’s leadoff hitter Christian Elliott.
O’Toole did him one better, picking up, first, a fielding error on Joe Sheeran’s bunt, then a throwing error on Nick Wagner’s bunt. That manifestation of nerves, misfortune or the tides in Ocean City favoring the visitors, created a quick run for the Mustangs. Bryan Perez’s clutch two-out, two-run single through the middle brought two more runs home to put Mainland ahead, 3-0.
By now, and rightly so, the Mustang bench was jumping through the dugout roof and the fans on the visitors side of the field seemed to be in the process of reconstructing the metal bleachers one stomp at a time.
Not to worry Golden Eagles faithful, many in attendance had yet to meet the real Simone or Knolls’ otherworldly shortstop Dickerson. That’s what the bottom of the first would be about.
“We never start like that,” said Simone. “I knew we’d come back.”
Dickerson, like much of the Golden Eagles, just a junior, but different from the standpoint that he is already committed to Virginia. He showed that when he deposited Cohen Cook’s second pitch beyond the right fielder’s reach for a double. Brodie Freker drew a one-out walk and Simone followed with an apology of sorts. He blasted a double to dead center field to bring in two runs and tie the game at 3-3.
“I knew the game was over at that point,” said Dickerson, uttering an absurdity that can be attributed to championship euphoria. That is unless you know what Dickerson knew about his team. And what his team knew about him, for that matter.
Morris Knolls, ranked No. 10 entering the game, nearly scored again in the second inning but left fielder Sheeran cut down Carter Seely at the plate trying to score on Dylan Fitzimmons’ two-out single. Dickerson had been intentionally walked ahead of Fitsimmons at bat.
Meanwhile, the previously bunt-challenged O’Toole had surrendered singles to the first two Mainland batters of the top of the second, Jake Lodgek and Elliott. But O’Toole retired the side in order from there, and no out was more important than a properly handled 1-3 sac bunt dropped down by Sheeran. The positive signs clearly had shifted to the home side.
“We didn’t let the errors in the first inning get to us,” said Simone.
Simone was on base in the third via a hit-by-pitch when Knolls put together a two-out, two-run rally to take a 5-3 lead. O’Toole singled to center and Darrin Cashman singled to right to load the bases. James Kahn, the No. 8 hitter, stepped in and ripped a shot down the right field line near the base of the wall for a double that scored two runs.
O’Toole went on a run of retiring 10 of 11 batters from the first out of the second inning to the first out of the fifth. That stifling coincided with the Golden Eagles’ offensive surge.
“I found a rhythm,” said O’Toole. “My fastball and slider were working well and I used my two-seam on a few hitters to get pop-ups. I could let them put it in play because I trust my defense.”
Morris Knolls coach Eric Mindrebo concurred with O’Toole’s analysis. “You have to earn your way on against Joe,” said Mindrebo. “If you look at his games all year, he pitched five or six innings and allowed less than five hits every time.”
The Morris Knolls’ lead ballooned to 8-3 in the fourth with some familiar faces very much involved.
Dickerson led off the inning with a hard single to center. Fitzsimmons drew a walk and the two pulled off a flawless double steal with Freker at the plate. With one out, Dickerson scored on a wild pitch for a 6-3 lead as Fitzsimmons took third. Simone then had a state final moment he, his teammates and the towns of Denville and Rockaway will not soon forget.
“It was a fastball, right there,” said Simone.
Simone blasted a fastball from Mainland reliever Jake Lodgek over the fence in left center field for a two-run home run and an 8-3 lead. The ball was so high above the fence that it crashed into the American flag flapping in the wind at the top of the flagpole beyond the fence. A little Old Glory to go with Simone’s memory.
“It’s a dream come true,” Simone said in the throes of celebration. “It was a fastball like the one I got in the Millburn game.” The one he got in the Millburn game landed over the fence, too, a three-run blast that capped that 12-0 victory in walk-off, mercy-rule fashion.
Dickerson helped manufacture Morris Knolls’ final run in the seventh after he was hit by a pitch leading off. He stole second and third and scored on a sac fly by, you guessed it, Simone, who finished 2-for-2 with a double, home run, three runs scored and five RBI.
His neighbor on the left side of the infield, Dickerson, was 2-for-2 with a double, the intentional walk, a hit-by-pitch, three runs scored and three stolen bases. And he made three terrific plays in the field. Dickerson made a play in the hole look easy for the second out of the fourth inning, then made two big plays to diffuse a Mainland rally in the bottom of the seventh.
O’Toole had emptied the tank with a 98-pitch, six-inning effort in which he permitted three runs, none of which were earned, on five hits. He struck out four and walked one. Lefthander Ryan Iberer closed out the final three outs but not before Sheeran singled and Wagner drew a walk to start the inning.
Cook then hit a bouncer toward the middle of the diamond that Dickerson snared, stepped on second and fired to first base for a crushing double play. Brady Blum then hit a slow bouncer to left side that Dickerson had to charge in on. He scooped up the bouncer, threw deftly across his body to first baseman Kahn, who squeezed it for the final out.
Immediately, the hell that Knolls’ had climbed out of six innings earlier, broke loose all over Bob Demeo Field.
Mindrebo and his charges remember well a 2021 season in which the Golden Eagles were 5-15. Dickerson and Simone were freshman starters on the Morris Knolls varsity that year.
“We talked to Luke, Mike and Ryan Iberer before the season and asked them what they wanted out of this season,” said Mindrebo. “They said they wanted the hardest schedule and that they wanted to push their teammates.”
Said Dickerson, “We’ve battled through adversity before and we did it today after we were down 3-0. We wanted to make our own impact on the program.”
NOTES: Iberer was the only Morris Knolls batter not to reach base, but was robbed of a hit in the first inning in a way no one could remember witnessing in a baseball game. He stepped in after Simone’s two-run double and ripped a liner to third baseman Bryan Perez’s left. Perez reached out and got just enough of his glove on the ball to pop it into the air toward shortstop Brady Blum. Blum didn’t have to move as he calmly caught it for the out. … Carter Seely had a double in the second inning for Morris Knolls.