The phrase, “defending Group IV state champions” is something Manalapan takes great pride in.
“First game of the season, Gardner (Manalapan assistant coach Brad Gardner) is telling us, ‘We’ve got to defend it. Everyone is going to be out to get out to get us,’ ” said Manalapan senior shortstop Brian Lamboy. “It’s not the same people (players as last year), but it’s still the same program.”
Manalapan is now one game away from becoming just the third Shore Conference school to win consecutive state championships after its resounding 13-3 win in six innings over Cherokee on Tuesday in a Group IV semifinal at Rutgers University’s Bainton Field.
Manalapan (17-11), which began the state tournament as the No. 10 seed in Central IV and with a record of 12-11, will meet Hillsborough (17-13) on Saturday at either Toms River North, Toms River East or Toms River South. The Braves have won 11 straight state tournament games.
“For us to be in the state championship with this group of kids, it’s unbeliveable,” said Lamboy, who along with senior pitcher-first baseman Joe Serrapica is one of two returning starters from last year’s powerhouse team.
“Last year, we had the expectations to get there. We knew we were going to get there. This year, it’s totally different — no expectations.”
“We knew we had special guys on this team,” said Serrapica, who pitched 5-plus innings of six-hit ball.
And it is no fluke, Manalapan has gotten there. It knocked off the No. 1, 2 and 3 seeds in Central IV. Then, it dismantled a highly-regarded Cherokee.
“We know we’re the underdogs and we’re thriving on the fact the pressure’s not really on us,” said Manalapan coach Brian Boyce, who collected career win No. 200 and is now coaching a team in a state championship game for the third time in his 12-season head coaching career.
Manalapan has also been a team that has thrived on emotion throughout the state tournament.
A solo home run by Cherokee’s Nick Follet off Serrapica with two out in the top of the second inning energized the Braves in this one
Follet raced around the bases at breakneck speed after the ball cleared the left field fence. Then, as he crossed home plate, he stared into the Manalapan dugout and let out a loud yell.
“It got us so pumped up,” Lamboy said. “We knew they weren’t going to win with one run.”
Serrapica began the bottom of the second with a booming double to right center. That began a four-run rally. Greg Yip’s suicide squeeze bunt plated one run, with a second run scoring on a throwing error on the same play. Lamboy’s two-run double down the right field line made it 4-1.
A bases-loaded walk by Mike Knauf and a two-run single by Billy Moed made it 7-1 in the third.
The Manalapan bench and fans let out a loud yell when Serrapica struck out Follet to end the top of the fourth.
Then, in the bottom of the fourth, everything came apart for the Chiefs (23-6). Their pitchers issued three walks and hit four batters, including two on 0-2 pitches, as the Braves increased the lead to 10-1. Cherokee pitchers issued 13 walks, three intentional in the game.
That inning also saw a bizarre rundown play, where originally two Manalapan runners were called out. However, the call was reversed after about a 15-minute discussion to just one runner called out and a Manalapan runner left on third.
The Braves added their final three runs in the sixth.
“We know from last year, the state tourname is our tournament,” Serrapica said. “We’re the defending Group IV champs and we want to defend it in the state championship game. We want to hold on to this.”
Manalapan 13, Cherokee 3
2B: (M) Serrapica, Lamboy 2, Gadaleta. 3B: HR: (C) Follet. WP: Serrapica 5-3. LP: Rossi 6-2.