Brian Boyce knew the team he coached at Manalapan in the 2011 season was special.
However, when practice for the 2012 season began, he and his assistant coaches — Brad Gardner, Kyle St. Angelo, John Mulvanerton, J.P. Noval, Shawn Hannon and Billy Smith — made it a point to turn the page.
“It was unfair to compare this group of kids to that group of kids,” said Boyce, whose team returned just two starters from a powerhouse team that won the NJSIAA Group IV championship and went 29-3 “We probably spoke about it very limitedly at best throughout the course of the year. These kids kind of wanted to develop their own identity.”
Manalapan’s 2012 team sure developed its identity. The Braves went on a Cinderella run and made it back-to-back Group IV state championships. Manalapan became the third team in Shore Conference history to win consecutive state championships and the first in Group IV.
“Last year, they (the 2011 Manalapan players) set the standard and set the tone,” said Boyce, who completed his seventh season at Manalapan and whose teams have gone 201-126 during his 12-season head coaching career. “We kind of used it and said, ‘We are the defending Group IV champions. Let’s go out and play like it. Win or lose. Let’s play good baseball.’ It just kind of snowballed from there.”
The Braves were the No. 10 seed in Central IV, had lost six of nine and were just 12-11 when the state tournament began.
They then knocked off the top three seeds to win the Central IV championship. That included a 5-2 win over No. 2 seed Jackson Memorial in a sectional quarterfinal.
The Jackson Memorial win enabled senior Joe Serrapica to rejoin the pitching rotation after being sidelined from pitching for three weeks in May with a shoulder strain.
Serrapica started and was the winning pitcher in three of the last four games in the state tournament, including a complete-game three-hitter in the 2-0 win over Hillsborough in the state final. He and senior shortstop Brian Lamboy were the only returning starters.
In 2011, Lamboy and Serrapica were role players who made significant contributions. This year, they were the heart of the team. Lamboy was a key contributor throughout the state tournament.
However, there were plenty of other heroes.
Ryan Ranieri had a two-run triple in the top of the first inning of the 4-1 win over Brick Memorial in the first round of the state tournament; Mike Knauf homered on the first pitch of the Jackson Memorial game; Greg Yip drove in the winning run with a suicide squeeze bunt in the top of the eighth of the 7-6 win over Steinert in the Central IV final; third baseman Billy Moed made a game-saving play in the seventh against Steinert; Vito Gadaleta hit the game-winning two-run homer with two out in the bottom of the sixth of the state final and pitchers Louis Marotta, Matt Simonetti and Dennis Giralomo provided key innings in three of the first four games of the state tournament.
“When you look at the state tournament, you can talk about a different hero every game. That was what made it so special,” said Boyce, whose program has won a Shore Conference-record 12 straight state tournament games.