Every state championship is special.
The NJSIAA Group IV championship Manalapan won on Saturday with a 2-0 win over Hillsborough at Toms River North’s Ryan Field is one of those that will be regarded as extra special in the history of Shore Conference baseball.
“I hate to say it is better than last year, but it is,” said Manalapan senior shortstop Brian Lamboy. “Last year was great, too, but this is awesome.”
Manalapan, which became the third Shore Conference school and, first in Group IV, to win consecutive state championships, just concluded one of the most remarkable runs in the history of the state tournament.
The Braves were seeded 10th in Central IV and had a record of 12-11 when the state tournament began. Their only returning starters from last year’s powerhouse team were Lamboy and senior pitcher/first baseman Joe Serrapica.
However, they showed what can happen if a team gets hot when the weather starts to sizzle.
Manalapan (18-11) beat the top three seeds to win the sectional title. It then beat a highly-regarded Cherokee team in the state semifinal. It concluded the run by beating a well-schooled Hillsborough team that was also on a Cinderella-type run
“It’s indescribable,” said Serrapica, who also said this title was more special than last year. “Last year, we were expected to win. That was special, as well, don’t get me wrong. This year, there’s just something different. I’m sure everyone else would say that, too.”
“Confidence is a funny thing,” said Manalapan coach Brian Boyce, whose program has won a Shore Conference-record 12 straight state tournament games. “When you start playing good baseball and the kids are confident and they start believing in themselves, all of the sudden they are making the plays. They’re having good at-bats, making the pitches.”
Even though it graduated eight starters and 18 seniors from a team that went 29-3, Manalapan did not start the season with a bare cupboard. It had two NCAA Division I-A recruits in Lamboy, who is going to Sacred Heart, and Serrapica, who is going to Fordham. Both were huge factors in the state tournament.
Serrapica became the team’s ace pitcher after the graduation of standouts Kyle Rubbinaccio and Jake Winston and seven-game winner Nick Kreiger. He went 3-0 over the last two weeks of the state tournament after he was sidelined from pitching for three weeks with a shoulder strain. That included a complete-game three-hitter on Saturday.
Lamboy, who was a second baseman last year, moved into the No. 3 spot in the order. It seemed like he was in the middle of almost every positive thing Manalapan did in the state tournament. That included Saturday when he preceded Vito Gadaleta’s long, game-winning two-run home run to left in the bottom of the sixth, with a two-out walk.
He also helped Serrapica get out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the top of the sixth by catching a pop-up and turning it into an inning-ending 6-4 double play that energized the Manalapan players and fans.
“They were leaders on and off the field,” Boyce said. “Joe battled through some injuries. Brian was the constant in the middle of the lineup and the middle of the field. Then, you had the juniors who matured over the course of the season. I think the result speaks for itself.”
But, before the state tournament began, even Manalapan’s players have stated they weren’t sure whether they had a run in them. Boyce, who also coached his scholastic alma mater, North Bergen, to the Group IV championship game in 2001, gave them a little reminder that anything was possible with a talk with his team.
“I thought we had the talent to compete,” Boyce said. “Our mantra was, ‘Why not us? Why not today? Every game, why not us? Why not today?’ “
And in the end, it was Manalapan with a special run for the ages.