Baseball – Point Pleasant Beach Finally Conquers Middlesex, Wins First Sectional Championship
MIDDLESEX -- Angelo Fiore was getting tired of the bus rides up the Garden State Parkway and along Route 287 to Middlesex High School, where the Point Pleasant Beach baseball coach has led his team into the lion's den each of the past four seasons, only to be devoured by the best Group I program in New Jersey.
"You get there and it can be intimidating," Fiore admitted. "They've got all their championship trophies and they are the kind of team that puts a lot of pressure on you. They have been the benchmark in Group I and you always know that going there."
On Friday, Fiore again led his team on the road to meet top-seeded Middlesex in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group I final for the third straight season and there were points during the game Fiore was fighting off unwanted flashbacks.
His players, however, don't have the same history and didn't care all that much about Middlesex's history. They were just hell-bent on making their own.
Junior Colin Reinhard hit a two-out, tiebreaking RBI double in the top of the seventh inning and junior right-hander Kyle Kolans retired three straight batters after a leadoff single in the bottom of the seventh as the Garnet Gulls finally conquered the four-time-defending-champion Blue Jays, 6-4, to win their first ever sectional championship.
"We played the perfect game," Fiore said. "We didn't have to be a better team than them, we just had to be better than them for one day and that's the way we looked at it. The culture is changing for Point Beach baseball, but this was that last big step we had to take. We had some nice seasons and done some good things as a program, but that wasn't enough for us this year. We wanted to do something special."
Prior to Friday, Middlesex had eliminated Point Beach from the state tournament in each of the past four seasons, with each of the past two coming in the sectional final. Last year's loss was especially heartbreaking, with Middlesex scoring the winning run in the bottom of the seventh on an error to claim a 2-1 victory and a fourth straight Central Group I title.
The situation Friday was similar, at least heading into the top of the seventh inning. The Blue Jays had just tied the game, 4-4, in the bottom of the sixth on an RBI single by left-hander Aidan Kozak, who took over on the mound with one out in the top of the fifth inning and stood to earn the win if he could post a zero in the top of the seventh and set his team up for another walk-off win in the seventh.
Point Beach had other plans. Senior Colin Matuschat drew a walk with one out and went to second with two out on a long fly out by senior Andrew Banick. Sophomore Nate Clayton then took a four-pitch walk with two out to bring Reinhard to the plate. With a 2-2 count, Reinhard lined a shot to right to score Matuschat with the go-ahead run. Clayton later scored the sixth Point Beach run on a passed ball.
"I have to admit, I started to get that sinking feeling in my stomach when they tied it in the sixth," Fiore said. "I just kept thinking back to the last few years, especially last year when they walked us off. But to the kids credit, they didn't care about any of that. They were just so focused and playing for each other. There was no way they were losing."
Although fired up after taking the lead, Point Beach still had to drive the stake through the monster's heart with three more outs in the bottom of the seventh and it did not start well. Kolans returned to the mound and surrendered a leadoff single to Middlesex's starting pitcher, Stephen Young.
Kolans bounced back by inducing back-to-back flyouts without the runner advancing, although Young did take second base with two out and an 0-1 count. Kolans, however, was focused on the batter and struck him out on three pitches to set off the celebration.
After junior right-hander James Larsen gave Point Beach three hard-fought innings, Kolans came on and allowed one run on three hits with three strikeouts and no walks over the final four frames. In finishing off the game, Kolans ran his record to 7-1 and continued his season as one of the great revelations for Fiore and his assistant Joe Mazza on this year's team.
"Kyle Kolans has been unbelievable," Fiore said. "He is a kid who has just gotten a little bit better every time he goes out there and you look up at the end of the season and he is 7-1 and he's pitched some of our biggest games of the season."
Clayton and Reinhard gave Point Beach its first lead in the top of the fifth, with Clayton hitting a game-tying RBI single and Reinhard following with a go-ahead RBI single to put Point Beach ahead, 4-3.
"Looking at this game going in, I thought the teams were very evenly-matched but I thought if we were going to win this game, the difference was going to be at the bottom of the order," Fiore said. "We killed them there. Colin Reinhard, Hunter Roselli and Connor DeLorenzo at seven-eight-nine in the order gives us an advantage over a lot of teams and you throw in what Nate Clayton did in the six spot, and we got major, major at-bats from guys in the bottom half of the order."
Middlesex jumped out to a 3-0 lead with three runs in the bottom of the second, including the last of the three runs on a play that Fiore called a "trademark" Middlesex play. Having seen his team get burned in the past, Fiore had his infield ready this time.
With the tying run on third and the go-ahead run on second with one out, Mike Salvatore laid down a bunt that successfully scored the third run of the inning. Point Beach, however, threw Salvatore out at first base and when Avery West came flying around third base and attempted to score a second run on the play, Matuschat quickly fired the ball to Clayton to catch West by five feet for the final out of the inning.
"With Middlesex, they are putting pressure on you the entire game," Fiore said. "That's how they play. They want to dictate the tempo of the game and you can't let that affect you. That's a play that we have seen them put on in the past and we have always gotten burned by it. This time, we were prepared, we executed and we stayed composed. That limited the damage and I think keeping the second run off the board gave us a major boost of confidence. They tried to beat us and we stopped them."
After snuffing out Middlesex's bunt play, Point Beach got on the board in the next half-inning with back-to-back sacrifice flies by Matuschat and Banick.
The Garnet Gulls have been building toward Friday's performance all year and there were signs along the way in 2022 that this year would be different if Point Beach could earn another shot at Middlesex. Point Beach defeated three Group IV schools during the regular season and in late May, the Garnet Gulls won three consecutive games against the three Toms River public schools: Toms River South, North and East.
"We were looking for a game to pick up on May 21st after one against Holmdel got rained out and (Toms River South coach) Kenny Frank called me and asked if we wanted to come play them," Fiore said. "Of course, we jumped at the chance and we went out and beat Toms River South at their field and that allowed us to jump New Egypt for the number-two seed in the power points.
"Then we go out and beat Toms River North and against Toms River East, we go down 8-2 and come right back and win going away. Those three games really changed everything. That showed us what we were capable of and I think we had a belief in ourselves that wasn't quite there in year's past."
The 2022 Garnet Gulls are now the first Point Beach baseball team to win 20 games and a sectional championship, but they also hope to keep playing. Point Beach will now prepare for Monday's Group I semifinal and will travel south to play South Jersey Group I champion Woodstown, which will be the host team.
"John Wagner told me when he was coaching football here at Point Beach: 'It's never the team you think," Fiore said. "They had a loaded team that lost in a sectional semifinal and came back the next year and won the state championship. Our team last year was super-talented and we really thought that was going to be the team. Then, this year's team has just had that special something and we're hoping we can keep it going through the end of this year and into the future."
Point Beach 6, Middlesex 4
|Pt. Beach (20-9)||0||0||2||0||2||0||2||6||6||0|
|Kyle Kolans (W, 7-1)||4||3||1||1||0||3||74|
|Aidan Kozak (L, 4-2)||2.1||1||2||1||3||0||38|
|Point Beach||Game Stats|
|Colin Reinhard||2-3, 2B, 2 RBI|
|Nate Clayton||1-2, 2 BB, R, RBI|
|Colin Matuschat||1-1, 2 BB, 2 R, RBI|
|Phil Trebour||2-4, R|
|Avery West||2-2, 2B, R, RBI|
|Tomas Lavornia||1-3, 2B, R, RBI|
|Aidan Kozak||1-3, RBI|