Single-minded Hunterdon Central overwhelms Pope John in HWS Final

By Bob Behre | May 18, 2023

Kyle Yasunas called what Hunterdon Central did to Pope John in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex baseball championship game yesterday, “A death by a thousand cuts.”

It would be hard to argue that logic after Hunterdon Central amassed 19 singles — and zero extra-base hits – on its way to a somewhat stunning 12-5 victory over the perennial Non-Public power.

Pope John (14-7) entered the game against unranked Hunterdon Central (12-8) sitting at No. 16 in the state by

It is Hunterdon Central’s third straight Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex championship and seventh since the tri-county event was initiated in 2010. The Red Devils also own 10 Hunterdon-Warren crowns during that twin-county tournament’s run from 1985-2009. It was Pope John’s fourth straight appearance in a HWS final. The Lions own tri-county championships in 2011, ’17 and ’19.

Yasunas, Hunterdon Central’s No. 3 hitter, was a full participant in an attack that saw the Red Devils put 29 runners on base against four Pope John pitchers. The Hunterdon Central DH singled twice, drew two walks and drove in three runs.

But shortstop Mike Contiliano stole the show with a 4-for-5 performance in which he drove in two runs, scored three times and ignited a crushing double play that threw a wet blanket on Pope John’s bases-loaded no-out rally in the fifth. Contiliano, a junior committed to Seton Hall, is batting .529 on the season on the strength of 36 hits.

“I feel really good at the plate,” said Contiliano. “My swing feels connected and I’m seeing pitches well.”

He was awarded the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award. A year ago, Brandon Padre earned the honor for his prowess at the plate, as well, as the Red Devils beat the Lions, 12-3. Hunterdon Central also defeated Pope John in a 2021 final pitchers duel, 2-1.

Contiliano found a few ways to skin a cat, as the saying goes, when it came to getting on base. He singled to right field with one out in the first inning and scored from second on Jared Cassella’s clutch two-run single through the middle. He singled to center field in the second to drive home a run and scored from third on Jimmy Lundari’s perfect safety squeeze bunt.

The lefty hitting Contiliano went oppo in the fifth, singling to left. He scored that inning, too, when Cassella drew a bases-loaded walk. He capped his day with a single in the sixth that glanced off pitcher J.C. Franconere and rolled into center field as Nick Augusta scored from third.

Hunterdon Central (12-8) won its third straight Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament championship,

“We knew what was at stake today and our energy was up,” said Contiliano. “We started this season with a lot of new faces and a different type of talent. It took a little adjustment but we are playing well now when it counts most.”

Hunterdon Central reached the NJSIAA Group 4 final a year ago but lost seven starters from that team, including ace Kyle McCoy, now pitching well in the rotation at Maryland. The righty Scott was the anticipated ace this spring, but elbow soreness has limited him to precious few innings thus far, though he appears ready to contribute as the state tournament begins next week.

“This is a very focused group that has been in a lot of tight games this season,” said Hunterdon Central coach Kevin Cuozzi. “It’s a team that when it plays its best baseball, can compete with any team in the state.” It also owns a victory over No. 6 Ridge.

While the relentless Hunterdon Central attack was the story, a few big moments went the Red Devils way and made as much of a difference in the outcome.

Contiliano was in the middle of one of those crucial moments, one that short-circuited Pope John’s fifth inning rally. Nick Struble led off with a double to left-center field off reliever Noah Baird. Baird had relieved starter James Scott with two outs and the bases loaded in the second. He induced Mike Gallaway, Pope John’s No. 3 hitter, to fly out to right field to end that threat and keep Hunterdon Central in front, 4-0. But Baird got himself in deep in the fifth when he followed Struble’s double with consecutive walks to Christopher Manco and Jack Portman, loading the bases with no outs.

Mike Contiliano of Hunterdon Central was named the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament MVP.

Marco Bonfiglio then lined a shot toward Contiliano at shortstop, who caught it on a short hop and fired to second baseman Andrew Nguyen for the force out. The runner on second, Manco, froze on the liner, unsure if it was caught on a fly. He then retreated to second where Nguyen tagged him out for the second out. Struble scored from third to cut the deficit to 9-3. But Baird had new life and struck out the next batter to end the inning.

“Mike scooped up the liner and threw it to me,” said Nguyen. “The runner froze, then came back toward the bag and I just tagged him. I may have had a shot at getting the batter at first, too (for a triple play).”

Scott, still working his way back to full time starter, battled with his command but, despite walking four and hitting two batters in 1.2 innings, allowed no runs on no hits. Baird, who picked up the win, restored order by retiring the first six batters he faced, four by strikeout. But he, too, committed some self-inflicted wounds. He walked the No. 9 hitter, Brandon Weir, and leadoff batter Brian McKenna with two outs in the fourth. A wild pitch put both runners in scoring position and Mac Tufts delivered them both with Pope John’s first hit of the game, a single to center that shaved the Red Devils’ lead to 5-2.

It looked like ‘Ballgame on.’

But Hunterdon Central’s bats remained red hot as the Flemington school erupted for four more runs on five more singles in the top of the fifth to extend the lead to 9-2. Baird started it with a leadoff single. Logan Escamilla (2-for-5, RBI, 2 runs), the No. 9 hitter, delivered him with a single through the middle before Contiliano and Yasunas chipped in with RBI singles of their own. Cassella capped the rally when he drew a bases-loaded walk.

Hunterdon Cenrtral’s seniore celebrate their third straight Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament championship.

Augusta (2-for-4, run) and Escamilla started a three-run rally in the sixth with one-out singles. Nguyen then dropped a bunt in front of home plate for a single that loaded the bases. Each runner would score courtesy of a Contiliano single, Yasunas walk and Cassella’s infield hit as the lead ballooned to 12-3.

Pope John, which got four of its six hits in its last two at bats, didn’t go quietly in the seventh, scoring two runs on a two-run single by Weir. Manco drew a leadoff walk, Bryce O’Hara singled and both stole a base before Weir’s hit. But sophomore reliever Ryan Lundari closed out his second inning of work and the game by striking out leadoff batter McKenna.

“We harp all year on the idea of making good contact with your swings,” said Cuozzi. “It’s a group that works very hard and came in here loose.”

NOTES: Pope John starter, lefty Ayden Alexander, permitted five runs, three of which were earned, on nine hits over four innings. He struck out seven and walked one and battled with his control to the point where he threw 99 pitches in those four innings.

… Scott was the winning pitcher in last year’s final when he filled in for an ailing Kyle McCoy. Alexander pitched in relief in that 2022 game.

…Every Hunterdon Central starter had at least one hit. Cassella was 3-for-4 with 3 RBI, Nguyen and Luke Breuer also had two hits and Baird and senior catcher Jimmy Lundari, who was credited with an RBI single on his nifty squeeze bunt, had a single apiece.

…Baird said he remained calm when he entered the game with the bases loaded and two outs in the second. “No nerves there. We’ve been resilient and we just showed up to play. We brought a lot of energy and now we have momentum heading into the state tournament.” Baird allowed three runs on two hits over 3.1 innings, struck out six and walked four.

…Yasunas said he sensed good things from the start. “We knew about him (Alexander), a lefty with a mid-80s fastball. We came ready to play. When we start rolling early like we did, we’re hard to stop.”

…Pope John’s fourth pitcher of the game, sophomore righty Brendan Opat, retired the Red Devils in order in the top of the seventh, the only inning the Lions staff did not allow a hit. Opat had two strikeouts.

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