A season that began with high expectations was close to turning into an extremely disappointing one when Freehold’s players decided to hash things out.
“We had a little meeting, just a players meeting, no coaches or anything like that,” said Freehold senior third baseman Anthony Vazzana. “We just sat down and said, ‘Listen, things have got to change because this program deserves better, this school deserves better and we deserve better.’ “
And gradually a Freehold team that was 4-8 after a 7-5 loss to Ocean on April 26, turned what was looking like a lost season into the most magical one in the program’s history.
The Colonials have gone 14-4 in their last 18 games and are now one win away from winning their first state group championship.
Freehold, which is in a state final for the first time since the NJSIAA started playing out to overall state group baseball champions in 1971, will meet Cranford (21-4) at 11 a.m. today at Toms River South’s venerable Ken Frank Baseball Stadium in the Group III state championship game. Freehold had not won a sectional title since 1966 before this memorable run.
“I knew from the beginning that we had all the potential that we needed,” said Vazzana, who is a four-year varsity starter. “We had the players, the pieces, the pitching, the hitting, the defense, everything. It was just a matter of gelling at the right time and getting it going at the right time.”
Freehold’s early season struggles were for a variety of reasons.
“Early, in the season, we were focused on other things rather than baseball,” Vazzana said.
“We set our goals high at the beginning of the year, but we did have some issues,” said Freehold coach Jon Block, who is in his 21st season as a head coach and is regarded by many as one of the Shore’s best baseball men. “We had two starters who were injured and they’ve never been out here. We had some school issues.”
The Colonials gradually worked their way back to .500, and then on May 12, they defeated Wall and Colts Neck in the Monmouth County Tournament round of 16 and quarterfinal-round games respectively.
“Once we beat those teams, we could look at ourselves at the mirror and say we can play with anybody,” Vazzana said.
A look at the Freehold team shows there was reason for the Colonials to have high expectations at the start of the season. Vazzana, senior right fielder Travis Rudic, junior center fielder Jason Lundy have started since they were freshman. Talented senior shortstop Matt Holtz, who started his scholastic career at Christian Brothers Academy, has started since he transferred back to Freehold his sophomore year.
“Four years ago, we cleaned house and started all the young kids,” said Block, who is in the fifth season of his second stint as the Colonials’ head coach. “A lot of parents were probably upset with us, but we thought we knew what we were doing. We stuck to our guns and we’re seeing the fruits of our labor in the second half of this year.”
A 4-2 win over No. 1 seed Wall in the Central III quarterfinals showed the Colonials had as good a shot as anyone in that section.
Red-hot hitting by Rudic (.500 with two homers and eight RBI in the state tournament) and Vazzana (.555 with a homer and four RBI in the state tournament) has enabled Freehold to get just enough runs. The Colonials have also played solid defense in the state tournament.
However, the key to Freehold’s run has been the pitching of junior left-handers Jake Yanez and Mike Bolton. Yanez, who will start today, is 2-0 with a 0.88 earned run average in three starts in the state tournament. Bolton, who will start at first base today, is 3-0 with a 0.44 ERA in 16 innings in the state tournament.
“It’s incredible what they’ve done in the five games,” Block said.