Baseball – Jackson Memorial Wins Elusive Tournament Title with Ocean County Final Victory Over Central
TOMS RIVER -- In a literal sense, rain and lightning pushed the Al Kunzman Ocean County Tournament championship game back multiple times over the last three weeks, but according to Jackson Memorial junior Charlie Meglio, it was written in the stars.
Meglio and his teammates suffered an agonizing defeat in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV semifinals at Howell on Tuesday, but with the OCT final postponed all the way to Wednesday, the Jaguars had one last chance to go out a winner in 2022.
Meglio provided an early jolt with a double in the first inning and a three-run home run in the second to earn tournament MVP honors and top-seeded Jackson Memorial ran away with an 11-2 win over No. 2 and defending champion Central Regional at Toms River North High School for its first OCT championship since 2015.
"I feel like everything happens for a reason," Meglio said. "This game kept getting delayed week after week and the best thing yesterday was to wipe it clean and (play) another day. We knew today was another chance, so we tried to play as loose as possible and enjoy it, especially for some of the seniors who aren't going to get a chance at the next level. We just genuinely wanted to have fun today and that resulted in us scoring 11 runs."
Senior left-hander Zach McCabe cruised through six innings on the mound to close out his career with a win and settled in after Central put the pressure on in the first two innings. McCabe allowed two earned runs on six hits and a pair of walks while striking out six -- including the last three batters he faced.
Central grabbed a 1-0 lead in the top of the first on a sacrifice fly by senior Shane Sajewicz, which came after back-to-back singles by senior Cam Leiter and sophomore catcher Cristian Soto.
Jackson Memorial did not let Central enjoy its early lead for long. Senior rightfielder Tommy Kendrick banged the first pitch of the inning off the leftfield wall for a triple and trotted home on an RBI single by senior second baseman Chris Cartnick one batter later.
Meglio launched a double to the wall in left-center, but Central momentarily kept Jackson Memorial off the board with a relay from junior centerfielder Chase Pierce to junior shortstop Dom Masino to Soto at home plate to cut down Cartnick trying to score from first.
"We knew it was going to be competitive from the start, so we knew we had to attack first," Meglio said. "They got one in the top of the first and we knew we had to counter that. We knew we had to keep adding on because if we kept them in the ballgame, we wouldn't win it."
Central's successful relay only delayed the inevitable, with Meglio moving to third on a sacrifice bunt by senior Zach Crotchfelt and scoring on an RBI single by junior catcher Aidan O'Donnell to make it 2-1 by the end of the first.
Meglio gave McCabe and the Jaguars some breathing room with a three-run blast on a 1-0 pitch in the bottom of the second inning, pushing Jackson Memorial's lead to 5-1.
"I was looking for a fastball up and in and I got it," Meglio said. "I thought it was gone off the bat, but then I saw the leftfielder going back like he might catch it. I knew I got it on the barrel, so I'm glad it got over the fence and I could help my team out, especially at a time when it gave us a little bit of breathing room."
The long dinger to left was the eighth homer of the season for Meglio and his 3-RBI game landed him at 35 to end his junior season.
"I'm looking forward to summer ball and I know that next year, that's my last go-round," Meglio said. "It's going to be like today: just have fun, play loose. I want something that we didn't get and that's the ring. That's something that I will have on my calendar marked off every single day, because that's something I need."
Central got a run back in the top of the third on an RBI single by Soto, with Masino sliding around a tag by O'Donnell. Jackson Memorial answered back in the bottom of the fourth by drawing four walks, with Crotchfelt picking up an RBI on a bases-loaded base-on-balls.
Crotchfelt later broke the game open in Jackson Memorial's five-run fifth. Three batters after Cartnick made it 7-2 with an RBI single, Crotchfelt roped a two-out, bases-loaded single to right field and kept running when the ball skipped past rightfielder Mason Lisewski. Crotchfelt cleared the bases and slid into home plate head first with Jackson Memorial's 11th run.
"I was jogging around first base and I saw it go past him and I had to turn on the burners," Crotchfelt said. "People don't really look at me as a guy that has speed, but I think I'm one of the better base-runners on the team as far as making the right reads and whatnot."
Before the top of the sixth inning, Jackson Memorial coach at George pulled Crotchfelt off the field so the senior could get a round of applause from the Jaguars cheering section and round of hugs from teammates and coaches.
"I was holding back tears," Crotchfelt said. "It's been a long four years to get to this point. I have been playing with a lot of these kids since I was six or seven years old, so knowing I won't really get a chance to play with them after this, it's tough, but I'm happy we could end on a high note."
Senior right-hander Sage Goeke closed out the game with a one-two-three seventh inning on nine pitches with two strikeouts.
The highlight of the night for Central came in the first inning, not only in the form of the first run of the game, but on a record-tying single by Leiter. With his first inning knock through the middle, Leiter collected his 45th hit of the season, pulling him into a tie with 2021 graduate Evan Agrapides for the single-season record.
Leiter will graduate after putting together one of the best all-round seasons in program history. The UCF commit finished the 2022 season batting .489 with 11 doubles, eight home runs, 33 runs and 34 RBI at the plate, while going 4-4 with a 0.89 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 47 innings on the mound. Leiter's four losses came against Jackson Memorial (twice) and the top-two ranked teams in New Jersey at present: No. 1 St. Augustine and No. 2 Kingsway.
Leiter already entered Wednesday with a place in Ocean County Tournament history after he pitched into the eighth inning of last year's 13-inning championship classic and struck out 12 vs. Brick Memorial. Central pulled out a 7-6 win on a walkoff single by Soto -- then a freshman -- in the bottom of the 13th.
Like Jackson Memorial, Central bowed out of the NJSIAA Group IV Tournament on Tuesday, losing a back-and-forth, 8-6 game to Kingsway on the road, with Leiter smacking his eighth home run and giving up one earned run while striking out nine in 4 2/3 innings, only to be done in by six Central errors.
Crotchfelt completed his own brilliant senior season Wednesday. The Auburn commit hit .359 with six doubles, three home runs, 18 runs and 27 RBI at the plate, but it was his pitching that stood out. After striking out 13 over six innings on Saturday against Old Bridge in the Central Jersey Group IV quarterfinals, Crotchfelt finished his senior campaign 8-2 with a 1.18 ERA in 65 1/3 innings with 130 strikeouts and 30 walks. The strikeout total is the No. 1 total in the Shore Conference heading into Friday's NJSIAA sectional final round, with Colts Neck senior Anthony Gubitosi at 122 and hoping to chase Crotchfelt down if Colts Neck advances to next week.
More than the numbers Crotchfelt and Meglio put up, their 2022 seasons will be defined by getting Jackson Memorial some tournament hardware after a four-year wait. Crotchfelt joined the program in 2019, which was one year after the Jaguars won the South Jersey Group IV championship. The Jaguars won the Class A South division title in 2019, 2021 and 2022, but came up short in every tournament in those seasons and did not get a chance to win an official tournament.
The Jaguars wrangled their entire team for the Last Dance World Series in the summer of 2020 and reached the state championship game by winning the South Jersey section. Jackson's team, however, lost the final to Cranford, so ending the season on a winning note was foreign to this group of Jaguars prior to Wednesday.
Although the disappointment of Tuesday's loss to Howell still put somewhat of a damper on Wednesday's celebration, there was a feel-good vibe to Jackson Memorial's on-field celebration, which they knew would be the last time this year's seniors would be in uniform together on a baseball field.
"I'm just glad we could send our seniors off with something I know they won't forget," Meglio said.
"We really looked forward to winning the states and Shore Conference Tournament, so it was tough to come up short," Crotchfelt said. "Tonight was a chance to come out, play loose and have fun. It was important for us, not only to send the seniors off on a high note, but also give the younger guys who are coming back something to build on. Now, they have that feeling of winning to look forward to next year. In four years here, I never really had that and it felt like it was missing so I'm glad we all got to experience that tonight."
Jackson Memorial 11, Central 2
|Jackson Mem (22-9)||2||3||0||1||5||0||X||11||8||0|
|Tyler Bell (L, 4-2)||2.2||6||5||5||2||2||66|
|Zach McCabe (W, 5-1)||6||6||2||2||2||6||90|
|Cristian Soto||2-2, BB, RBI|
|Cam Leiter||1-3, R|
|Dom Masino||1-3, R|
|Jackson Memorial||Game Stats|
|Charlie Meglio||2-3, 2B, HR, BB, 3 R, 3 RBI|
|Tommy Kendrick||2-2, 3B, 2 BB, HBP, 4 R|
|Chris Cartnick||2-4, BB, R, RBI|
|Zach Crotchfelt||1-2, BB, R, 3 RBI|
|Aidan O’Donnell||1-4, RBI|