Though the Hunterdon Central High baseball team has often set the pace in the Hunterdon/Warren/Sussex Tournament, the Red Devils had come up empty in the last two finals. The Red Devils, however, played like a heavy favorite in this year’s championship game.
Second-seeded Central (17-8) scored a 10-0 mercy-rule, five-inning victory over No. 6 seed Vernon (11-11) Saturday night at Diamond Nation behind the pitching of senior righty Billy Maier, 5-2, who threw a two-hit complete game. Maier, who struck out six – fanning three in both the second and third innings — was named the game’s MVP.
The title was the 12th overall for Central and second since Sussex County schools became part of the tournament in 2010 when the Red Devils last won.
Senior shortstop Jeremy Ake reached base four times with a walk, single and run scored, hit by pitch and run scored and game-ending RBI double in the bottom of the fifth. Freshman first baseman Matt Toke had a two-run homer in the third to give Central a 4-0 lead.
“We have been fortunate to do well in these tournaments for the most part other than the past two years,” said coach Mike Raymond. “They are all special, but it’s really special to win a game like this. because these guys have worked so hard every day. They have just committed themselves to just getting better every single day. That’s been our sole goal.”
Central has won eight straight and 11 of 12 since consecutive losses to Bridgewater-Raritan (1-0, April 23) and Watchung Hills (5-1, April 25).
“When a team with expectations like ours starts 2-5, you can kind of fall apart from the inside out,” Raymond said. “But these guys got tighter as a group and really battled.”
The game started routinely enough with Central breaking through when Paul Cucco scored on a wild pitch in the second inning. The third was where Central broke it open. Brett McManus walked, went to third on Ake’s single, and then scored on a wild pitch to make it 2-0. The lefty-swinging Toke, who lined out deep to right in the second, then hit a two-run, opposite field homer over the left center field fence.
“He’s a special player, man, he is very talented, to see a freshman play the way he has played all year long, I’m really proud of the way he’s played, he’s come a long way in three months,” Raymond said. “He really, really has a bright future.”
The lead became 5-0 not long after. Cucco, the last batter starter senior righty Kevin Berge would face, doubled. Matt Harboy relieved and got Matt Stalter to ground out to third. Cucco stole third and came home on Henry Hawkins’ RBI single.
Maier set Vernon down in order in the fourth and got the first two out to start the fifth before a Zack Moen single. But Harboy grounded into a force to send the game into the bottom of the inning where Central scored three runs to end it.
“It’s always good to get off to a good start, not only helps me but the whole team when I go out there and throw strikes,” said Maier.
One other positive is that since Maier threw just five innings, he could pitch five if needed Monday when the ninth-seeded Red Devils play at No. 8 Howell in a first round Central IV tournament game.