WEST LONG BRANCH
For an instant on Tuesday, it looked like the Hunterdon Central High School baseball team just might tie the NJSIAA Group IV semifinal against Eastern Regional.
Then, with one emphatic jab of air from the first base umpire, the Red Devils’ season was that quickly closed and Eastern had advanced to the state championship game.
So close, so painfully close.
Second baseman Nick Tierno’s grab of Henry Hawkins grounder and throw to first baseman Jake Quinn wrapped Eastern’s 2-1 win at Monmouth University. The South champs (29-3) will play North 2 Group IV winner Westfield (19-11) Saturday for the state title at a site and time to be determined.
The way the seventh inning started, it might have taken the most optimistic of Central fan a hard time believing the Red Devils had any chance. Senior right-hander Alex Bussison (7-1) struck out Matt Toke looking and Paul Cucco on a groundout to Tierno. Six pitches, two outs and nine Red Devils down in order.
But Matt Stalter worked back from a two-strike count to walk. Central coach Mike Raymond called for Mike Pfenninger as a courtesy runner and Pfenninger stole second. Hawkins hit a grounder that appeared bound for center field with Pfenninger getting the green light to head home. Tierno planted and made the throw to Quinn, who made a fine scoop. The call was very, very close, but it ended Central’s 12-game winning streak and sent the team home with a final record of 21-9.
“I thought about back handing it, but I decided to try to get in front of it,” said Tierno, a former shortstop and third baseman, who is still listed as a reserve catcher. “My plant foot was on the outfield grass and I slid a little bit and I knew they were sending him (for home). There was an instant where I thought about eating it, but instincts took over. I threw to Jake and he picked it up. It was a great scoop.”
The Vikings, who won their first-ever sectional title Friday, had reason to celebrate once again with a traditional pile of bodies. Raymond gathered his team in left field.
“I’m proud of them,” said Raymond of his team, which won Central Group IV and Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex titles. “They really, really battled.”
They led, too, against a team ranked in some polls as high as No. 3 in the state, a team averaging 6.9 runs per game.
John Icaza led the game off with a single, went to second on Bussison’s errant pickoff throw and came home on Jeremy Ake’s double down the left field line. Ake went to third on a passed ball. Toke nearly poked an opposite field RBI hit to left, but the ball just went foul before the freshman grounded out to end the inning. The 1-0 lead didn’t last long.
Central starter and righty Mike Novello walked Tierno and Ryan Delaney to start the first. Tierno got picked off between second and third and when Tom Flacco – Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco’s youngest brother – grounded out for the second out it looked like the Red Devils might avoid trouble.
But Steve Priolo walked and Quinn delivered a two-run, two-out single. When Novello walked the eighth and ninth batters in the second after striking out DH Matt Marella to start the inning, Raymond went to ace Billy Maier. Maier went 42⁄3 scoreless innings, striking out seven, allowing five hits. One was an infield hit and the other a bunt single meant to be a sacrifice.
“He kept us in the game,” said Raymond, adding that Maier wouldn’t have started since he was going on three days’ rest after Friday’s 2-1 win over Brick Memorial in the sectional final.
Bussison, considered the No. 2 starter behind Priolo, threw like an ace. He came into the game with a 2.98 earned run average and delivered a complete-game four-hitter, striking out six. He walked two – Icaza in the third, who was caught stealing and Stalter in the seventh.
“He had a really good slider,” said Ake. “It was tough to notice, tough to hit. He located it really well.”