Six years ago, Tyler Heisch predicted this day would come.
An attendee at Middlesex High School baseball coach Mike O’Donnell’s youth baseball camp that summer, Heisch noticed a banner on the center field fence beneath the scoreboard in honor of the the Blue Jays’ 2007 state championship team.
“We were about 12 years old then,” Heisch said, “and when we noticed the banner, the first thing we did was go up to coach and said, ‘Wait till we get there.’ “
That particular group of players, which makes up most of this year’s varsity squad, finally got there on Sunday afternoon.
The venue was Toms River High School South’s Ken Frank Baseball Stadium, and the task was to solve Pompton Lakes and its ace Kevin Magee.
Although the Blue Jays have arguably the best hitting lineup in all of Group I, getting to Magee in a state championship game certainly was far from a day at the park. The Cardinals’ lefty, who entered the state final 9-0 with a 0.64 ERA and 154 strikeouts to just five walks in 54 innings, was second in the state in strikeouts-to-innings pitched ratio.
However, Middlesex came in prepared and despite being staked to a two-run lead before even taking the hill, Magee wasn’t able to shut down the Blue Jays’ bats.
Their lineup tagged him for seven runs on five hits and three walks in only 31⁄3 innings and Middlesex capped off an historic season with a 9-5 victory in the NJSIAA Group I final before a large contingency of Blue Jays faithful from the tight-knit community that made the hour-plus long trip down the Garden State Parkway.
Middlesex finished the campaign at 26-4, reaching the high-water mark for wins in a season. It’s the third overall state title, having won Group I in 1990 in addition to 2007.
“We are the product of our community who has worked hard for our entire lives,” said senior shortstop Heisch who led the Blue Jays with 52 hits on the season. “We’ve been playing travel baseball since we were six years old, and our parents did a great job getting us to all of the games.
“We knew coming into high school that we were going to hang with the toughest opponents, and at the end of the day we got the chance. We really are the pride of a proud community.”
Preparation is a huge part of baseball, and O’Donnell, his coaching staff and his players were masters of the art this week. Heisch revealed that O’Donnell found video of Magee on the Internet, and he made his players spend quality time in the classroom as well as on the diamond this week.
“We researched him hard and found a lot of film on him,” said Blue Jays junior center fielder Kris Fellin. “We sat in the classroom and watched his arm angle, his lift, his motion, his pick-off move and how many looks to home he would give. We really just studied him well, and we got a good roll today.”
After Sean Lindberg gave Pompton Lakes a 2-0 lead with a two-run homer in the bottom of the first inning, all the week’s preparation went into motion for Middlesex when they came to bat in the visiting second. With two away, senior second baseman Jeff Reinecke and Fellin struck back-to-back singles up the middle coupled with a two-out walk to senior right fielder Kyle Dotey.
What ensued was a five-run rally that, for all intents and purposes, destroyed the Cardinals’ spirits.
A passed ball plated Reinecke and a hits batsman issued to No. 9 hitter Anthony Vischetti scored Fellin to knot the game at 2-2. Heisch followed with an infield single that sent Dotey across the plate for a lead Middlesex would never surrender.
After Blue Jays senior left-hander Tommy Marcinczk walked, junior designated hitter Brennan Price, who entered the game leading the state with 60 RBI, added two more to his ledger with a double in the gap that plated Vischetti and Heisch.
“It was huge,” Heisch said of immediately answering Pompton Lakes. “We talked about it all week at practice. We knew they were a great hitting team, and we we knew we’re a great hitting team. We called it a wave. We knew they were going to get their wave of hits and runs. We just had to manage their wave and capitalize on their mistakes.”
Meanwhile, Marcinczyk showed a bulldog mentality. Each time Pompton Lakes scored, he limited the damage.
He struck out five straight Cardinals following Lindberg’s first-inning homer, and managed to strand seven runners on base. In six innings of work, he labored at times but allowed five earned runs on six hits while walking four. He struck out 10 and tossed 129 pitches.
“The kid is the ultimate competitor,” O’Donnell said of his ace who finished a perfect 11-0 on the season. “Even if he doesn’t know how to fight, you want to bring him into a fight because he’s just not going to give in at any cost. And that’s why he was on the mound today because I know no matter what he’s going to give us the chance to win.”
Leading 8-5 in the visiting seventh, Dotey blasted a homer deep over the right center field fence off of the Ken Frank Baseball Stadium field house to start the unofficial celebration.
The state title is sweet redemption for Middlesex, which learned a valuable lesson from being ousted in the first round of last year’s sectional tournament as the No. 1 seed.
“Not to panic; that’s the biggest thing we learned,” Dotey said, “because even if teams put up runs against us like they did in that first inning today, we’ve learned not to panic.”