Manalapan’s second consecutive state title was as improbable as last year’s championship run was resounding.
Senior pitcher Joe Serrapica threw a three-hitter and senior cleanup batter Vito Gadaleta smashed a two-run home run in the bottom of the sixth as the Braves defeated Hillsborough, 2-0, to win the NJSIAA Group IV championship Saturday at Toms River North’s Ryan Field.
The win gave Manalapan (18-11) its second straight Group IV crown while becoming the third Shore Conference team to capture consecutive titles, joining Toms River South (2002-03 in Group III) and St. Rose (2008-09 in Non-Public B).
“Last year was special for other reasons and this year is extra-special because of the run we had through the tournament,” Manalapan coach Brian Boyce said.
The difference between both Manalapan squads was as stark as the final scores in the Group IV final. Last year, Manalapan muscled its way to the title with a 29-14 victory over Westfield in the title game to put an exclamation point on a 29-3 season.
This time, the Braves rode Serrapica’s pitching, an air-tight defense and Gadaleta’s clutch home run, his fifth this season, to successfully defend their title. Manalapan has now won a Shore Conference-record 12 straight games in the state tournament.
“This one was a little more pins and needles than that one,” Boyce said.
“Last year was phenomenal. It was the best team I’ve ever played for in my life,” Serrapica said. “But this year I believe is a little more special just because we had no expectations.”
Indeed, Manalapan entered the Central Group IV tournament as the No. 10 seed with a 12-11 record. The Braves, though, knocked off the top three seeds, including No. 2 Jackson Memorial in the sectional quarterfinals and top-seeded Steinert in the final, before beating Cherokee, 13-3 in six innings, in the Group IV semifinal.
Against Hillsborough (17-14), which also made an unexpectecd run to the Group IV final, Serrapica threw 81 pitches while allowing just three singles and two walks — one intentional — with four strikeouts.
“I wanted the ball,” said Serrapica, who went 3-0 in the state tournament and finished 6-3 overall. “I wanted the ball the Cherokee game, too. I wanted this team to ride me just because I had the confidence in myself and I had confidence in my teammates.”
Serrapica kept the game scoreless in the top of the sixth by working out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam.
Facing cleanup batter Tyler Ferretti, Serrapica fell behind 3-0 before getting to a full count. Ferretti then hit a bloop over senior shortstop Brian Lamboy, who ran under the ball and made the catch. Lamboy immediately threw to second baseman Matt Parke to double off a Raiders’ baserunner at second that ended the threat and kept the game at 0-0.
“I knew I was going to get it,” Lamboy said. “When I was running back I saw (the baserunner) going, so I caught it, threw it real quick, and Parke made a big pick and got out of the inning.”
Lamboy then drew a two-out walk in the bottom of the sixth against Raiders starter Evan Edelman, who baffled the Braves for much of the game with an effective curveball. Gadaleta followed by hammering a first-pitch curve over the left-field fence for a two-run homer to give the Braves a 2-0 lead.
“I knew the curveball was coming, so I moved up in the box and I wanted to catch it right at home plate,” said Gadaleta, who struck out his previous at-bat. “The last at-bat I let it travel deep and that’s why I kind of found myself striking out.
“This is the greatest moment of my life, by far. Knowing that I was able to come through for the team, it really meant a lot to me.”
“We were deep last year and (Gadaleta) didn’t get his opportunity,” Boyce said. “He was patient, and you can’t ask for anything more than that. He’s really our guy in the order that can deliver that blow.”
Serrapica completed the shutout with a 1-2-3 seventh, getting a flyout to rightfielder Greg Yip for the final out and touching off another dogpile celebration for the Braves.
Manalapan 2, Hillsborough 0
2B: (M) Lamboy; HR: (M) Gadaleta; WP: Serrapica 6-3; LP: Edelman 7-3.