Throughout their miraculous fairytale run in the NJSIAA Non-Public B state playoffs, the Crusaders of Morris Catholic played mistake-free baseball and had a ton of timely hits.
Both aspects eluded the Crusaders Sunday, as they were held to four singles by sophomore P.J. Strahm and they made a costly mistake on a sacrifice attempt in the fourth inning. The result was a 3-0 victory for Rutgers Prep in the Non-Public B state championship game at Toms River North High School.
The victory gave Rutgers Prep (17-11) its first-ever state title, while the Crusaders (16-11) failed to win their first state championship since 1971.
The way the starting pitchers were going — namely Strahm for Rutgers Prep and Alex DiCocco for the Crusaders — matching zero after zero in the early innings that whoever scored first would have a solid chance of winning.
“It was 0-0 the whole way,” Morris Catholic head coach Pete Zoccolillo said. “We knew it was going to be close and one run might get it.”
So in the bottom of the fourth inning, the Crusaders looked poised to grab the lead. Andrew Ferrara, the freshman first baseman, reached on an error and his older brother, Dave, followed with a hard single to left. It was the 100th hit in the elder Ferrara’s career.
With runners on first and second and no out, Zoccolillo called on second baseman Nick DeAngelis to bunt the runners over.
“In that situation, we had to get the bunt down,” Zoccolillo said.
DeAngelis popped the bunt up in the air and Strahm snared it. The younger Ferrara drifted off second base, so an alert Strahm wheeled and threw to second to double off Ferrara.
“We didn’t execute there and it killed us,” Zoccolillo said. “We’ve been talking all year about executing, about doing the little things. If you don’t do the little things right, you lose.”
The next inning, the Argonauts finally broke through against the game DiCocco. With one out, Paul Nemergut singled and Colby Smith doubled for the second time in the game. Malcolm Kelsey lofted a fly ball to right and his sacrifice fly scored Nemergut with the first run of the game.
The Argonauts then put the game away with two runs in the top of the seventh on a two-run double from Matt Von Roemer, pushing the lead to 3-0.
But Strahm didn’t need the extra runs, because he was only in limited danger twice. Drake Brown and Justin Johannessen had consecutive singles in the third inning and made it to second and third on a wild pitch, but Strahm got Nick Matera to line out to second base.
And after the fourth inning threat, Strahm (7-4) struck out the side in the fifth and didn’t allow a hit the rest of the way.
“It’s not the game we wanted to have,” Zoccolillo said. “It’s not the way we wanted to go. But you’re not going to hit every game.”
The Crusaders had three straight games in the state playoffs of double digit totals in hits, but managed just the four singles Sunday.
“It’s unbelievable, especially because we had been hitting so well lately,” said the elder Ferrara, who got the ball for his milestone hit. “But that’s baseball. You see the same thing in the major leagues. Sometimes, teams just go cold for no reason. Every other time lately, we got the big hit. We made the big play. Then today, it stops. We did everything right to this point. It’s devastating to lose that way.”
Junior right-hander DiCocco, whose record dropped to 4-3, did everything he could to keep the Crusaders in the game. DiCocco scattered eight hits _ three of which came in the final inning _ while striking out one and walking one. He forced the Argonauts to pound the ball into the ground, recording nine ground ball outs over the first six innings.
“DiCocco pitched well,” Ferrara said. “We just didn’t hit for him.”
Still, it was an incredible run for the Crusaders.
“Looking back, once the sting of this loss goes away, we’ll see that it was an amazing season,” Zoccolillo said. “I didn’t want these kids to leave here with their heads down. These kids built the foundation of our program. Give them credit. Maybe this will motivate the kids who are coming back to get back to this point. And they’re going to expect to come back. That’s the difference. We expect to win and that says everything about the type of kids we have. They believe in themselves and they did more than anyone expected. It’s a tough way to lose, but we’re moving forward now with a different mentality.”
However, the elder Ferrara’s career ended Sunday with the setback.
“It’s definitely hard to lose,” Ferrara said. “They played better than us today. If you ask me any other time about the season, I’ll say overall I was happy. But right now, it stings.”
And will probably sting for a long time, but the Crusaders enjoyed a year to remember, capped with the team’s first state sectional title since 1979. That says it all, considering the Crusaders won all of seven games last year.