Baseball – Howell Upends Jackson Memorial to Reach First NJSIAA Sectional Final Since 1994
FARMINGDALE -- The Howell baseball team suffered two tournament losses on its home field in May. In the first one, senior ace Dan Furlong was unable to pitch. In the second one, he pitched the worst game of his high school career.
For Howell to continue what has the makings of a historic season for the program, the Rebels needed Furlong on the mound for seven innings and at the top of his game Tuesday against a team playing as well as any in the Shore Conference over the last five weeks.
In the most crucial moments of the biggest game he has ever pitched, Furlong performed like the steady-handed ace that he has been for the Rebels, leaning on his defense and pitching Howell -- the No. 2 seed in Central Jersey Group IV -- past No. 3 Jackson Memorial, 3-2, and into the sectional championship game for the first time in 28 years.
"This feels awesome, especially since we got knocked out early in the other two tournaments," Furlong said, referencing the Monmouth County and Shore Conference Tournaments. "I think everyone was expecting more from us, including ourselves, and know we're really showing it."
Tuesday's win also matched a single-season program record for wins at 22 and with a win in its next game -- the Central Jersey Group IV championship at Howell High School Friday against No. 9 seed East Brunswick -- Howell would set a new wins record while claiming its first sectional championship since 1994.
"This was a tough game," Furlong said. "We know they are a top team in the Shore and they have some of the best hitters in the Shore. But we have played some of the best teams already and beat most of them. Plus we have a wins record to break and we all want it more than anything."
Furlong injured his finger in a regular-season win over Long Branch and the injury prevented him from making a scheduled start on the mound against Wall in the Monmouth County Tournament quarterfinal on May 1, which Howell lost, 12-11. Furlong later took the ball against 15th-seeded Central Regional in the Shore Conference Tournament round of 16 and gave up eight runs in two innings as the Golden Eagles crushed the second-seeded Rebels, 19-2.
"He's just a bulldog," Howell coach Eric Johnson said. "That's the way other coaches have described him to me and that really is a great way to describe him. He is going to battle you, he is going to pitch to you, he is not afraid of you. He is going to give you his best and you've got to beat his best."
The NJSIAA Tournament has been much kinder to Furlong, who worked to get himself back to the top of his game for an opening-round, 3-1 win over Manalapan in which the Howell senior took a shutout into the seventh inning and finished off the complete game on 74 pitches.
Furlong followed a script nearly identical to the one he used to beat Manalapan last week, doing so on 83 pitches. He allowed two runs -- one of which was earned -- on eight hits without issuing a walk, although he did hit three batters. Furlong also only struck out two batters, relying on a Howell defense that came through time and time again and committed just one error that came after the ball took an unexpected hop on senior second baseman Nick Gallo.
That single Howell error came in the top of the seventh inning, when Howell had to once again hold off a rally to lock up a state tournament win. With two more runs allowed in the seventh on Tuesday, the Rebels have surrendered six runs in the seventh inning in their three tournament games and just one over the course of the other 18 innings.
"That's something we may have to address in practice but give our guys credit: they find a way to win," Johnson said. "One thing that's good about this team is mistakes are going to happen we just have to learn from them and fix the problem at hand and that's what they keep doing. They don't get down on each other. I made some mistakes today and they didn't get down on me. They really understand the concept of what it is to be a team. In those late innings, when we make a mistake, they don't dwell on it. They move on and make the next play."
Furlong hit Jackson Memorial junior centerfielder Mike Arent with the first pitch of the seventh inning and junior leftfielder Matt Koblos beat out a a ground ball to shortstop that took a long, high hop to. Senior rightfielder and leadoff hitter Tommy Kendrick then hit the ground ball that changed direction on Gallo, who successfully stopped the ball, but made a rushed, errant flip to the second base bag.
With the bases now loaded with the tying runs, Jackson Memorial had the heart of its order ready to march to the plate. Senior second baseman Chris Cartnick hit a fly ball to right field for a sacrifice fly, scoring Arent and getting Koblos to third on a tag-up. Junior shortstop Charlie Meglio then ripped a single into centerfield to score Koblos and move Kendrick to second with the tying run.
Furlong then dug in and induced another fly ball to right by senior third baseman J.R. Osmond for the second out, deep enough to get Kendrick to third base after tagging up.
In stepped senior first baseman and Auburn commit Zach Crotchfelt, who worked the count to 2-1 before hitting a flyball that hung up into a steady wind blowing in from center. Rebels senior centerfielder Devon Smith tracked it to the gap, curled as it got knocked down by the wind and made a diving catch coming in to end the game.
"I was just throwing my best pitch to him," Furlong said of the game's final at-bat. "I wasn't giving up there with the tying run on. I just thought it was a pop-up to centerfield. I saw the wind keep taking it and Devon made the best play all season in our biggest game all season."
Smith had a standout all-around game, going 1-for-2 at the plate with a walk, run scored and an RBI that gave Howell a 2-0 lead in the second inning. After batting in one of the top two spots in the order for most of the year, Smith shifted to the No. 9 spot for the first time in Howell's 5-4 win over Monroe on Friday.
"Devon Smith has just been unbelievable in the outfield all year long," Johnson said. "You just knew he was catching that ball, even as he was going down to the ground."
The Rebels took the first lead of the game with two runs in the bottom of the second, aided by back-to-back walks by Jackson Memorial junior left-hander Anthony Mehmet to leadoff the inning, followed by two Jaguars errors. Sophomore Joe Zito picked up an RBI on a ground ball that turned into the first of the two errors and Smith drove in the second of the two runs with his RBI single.
Howell picked up a key insurance run in the bottom of the sixth on a bases-loaded balk called on Mehmet with two out and a 2-2 count on the batter. Mehmet paused on delivery and was flagged for the balk. He got out of the inning with a comebacker to the mound two pitches after the balk.
The three-run Howell lead might have been 5-0 if not for a couple of tidy relays from the Jackson Memorial outfield. In the bottom of the first, Howell senior shortstop Thomas Strauch hooked a double down the leftfield line with senior catcher Nick Todisco on first base. Johnson gave Todisco the wave around third to try to score, but Jackson Memorial got the ball in from the corner, with Koblos throwing to Meglio, who fired the ball home to junior catcher Aidan O'Donnell from shallow left.
O'Donnell caught the throw from Meglio in foul territory and lunged to make the tag on on Todisco, who slid to the inside of the plate. The home-plate umpire was up the third-base line to follow the play and made the out call one-third of the way to third base, keeping the game scoreless for the time being.
Todisco was again thrown out at home in the bottom of the third, although it was not close this time. With two out and Todisco on first base, senior leftfielder Nick Gomes roped a line drive over the head of Kendrick for a double and was chugging to third in hopes of the triple.
Jackson Memorial, however, had its two strongest arms on the field on the case. Kendrick fired the ball in to Crotchfelt and the flame-throwing left-hander unleashed a strike to home from just inside the outfield grass to get Todisco by a considerable margin, keeping the Jaguars deficit at 2-0.
Meglio also threw behind a runner at third base to minimize the damage in the second inning, with the junior shortstop taking the flip from Cartnick on a possible double-play, reading that there would be no play at first, faking the throw toward first and spinning with a throw to third to get senior Jeremiah Wojenski, who made a hard turn around the bag.
Howell will turn to Gomes on the mound for the Central Group IV final on Friday against an East Brunswick team that battled past No. 8 Freehold Township in round one, shutout No. 1 seed Middletown South, 1-0, in the quarterfinals, and rallied from a 2-1 deficit in the seventh on Tuesday to beat No. 5 North Brunswick, 4-2, in eight innings. All three wins by the Bears came on the road and they will try to make it four in a row away from home in Friday's sectional final.
"It's really special for me and it's special for these kids," Johnson said. "I think this is going to be the first time a sectional final has ever been played on this field, so it's really a big thing for these kids to be able to do. They are making history."
Howell 3, Jackson Memorial 2
|Jackson Mem (21-9)||0||0||0||0||0||0||2||2||8||3|
|Anthony Mehmet (L, 3-2)||6||6||3||2||4||0||88|
|Dan Furlong (W, 9-1)||7||8||2||1||0||2||83|
|Jackson Memorial||Game Stats|
|Charlie Meglio||2-3, HBP, RBI|
|Mike Arent||1-2, HBP, R|
|Matt Koblos||1-3, R|
|Tommy Kendrick||1-3, HBP|
|Nick Gomes||2-2, 2B, BB, R|
|Thomas Strauch||2-3, 2B|
|Devon Smith||1-2, RBI|
|Joe Zito||1-3, R, RBI|