by Andrew Garda
VERONA—May 31, 2013. That was the last time Montclair High School’s baseball team had made an appearance in the Greater Newark Tournament finals.
Five years and 352 days later, the No. 4-seeded Mounties not only found themselves in the finals of the 87th GNT on Saturday, May 18, but on the winning side of a 12-1 dismantling of top seeded Seton Hall Prep. It was a beat-down bad enough to invoke the 10-run, fifth inning mercy rule and end the game early.
“They’re a first-class program, and they’re the standard of the county and the state,” said co-head coach Ron Gavazzi. “Winning the GNT is always special, no matter who you play but certainly beating Seton Hall, for the great program they are, it makes it feel real good, real special because you’ve got so much respect for them.”
“It’s incredible,” said senior infielder Conor McGrath. “I’ve never felt a better feeling in my life. I’m so happy right now. We knew they were a good club, we know how good they can be, we know we have to execute to win and that’s what we did today.”
The Mounties started off by scoring a run in the first, as McGrath walked and then scored on a double by Ethan Greengrass, but they really got going in the second inning when they notched three runs during a two-out rally.
Montclair has produced runs with two outs numerous times this season and seem to be able to bear down when their backs are against the wall.
In this case, it all began when catcher Nick Urquijo came to the plate against SHP starter Kieran Hollander. Urquijo battled hard, finally connecting for a base-hit. Shortstop Alex Borelli came up next and reached on an error by shortstop Justin Cassella.
One thing the 2019 Mounties can do is make a team pay for mistakes, and that was no less true Saturday afternoon. After Borelli reached on an error, McGrath came to the plate. He and Hollander battled hard, and for a moment it appeared as if the pitcher had won when McGrath drove a ball deep to left-center field for what should have been an out.
However, just as leftfielder Lucas Zyska’s glove grabbed the ball, centerfielder Chris Maldonado collided with his teammate’s legs. Both players went down and the ball popped free, rolling towards the outfield fence.
Urquijo and Borelli both scored, while McGrath continued to round the bases and the outfielders remained on the ground. By the time SHP had gathered up the ball, Gavazzi had sent McGrath home and the Mounties had scored three runs.
“When I hit that ball, I saw it off the bat and I knew I pieced it well,” McGrath said. “It was a good shot off the bat, and then rounding first everyone started going crazy. I kind of blacked out a little bit, I was excited myself. Then I saw [the outfielders] both on the floor — and I hope they’re both OK — but I saw them on the floor and I just kept running.”
Hollander would get out of the inning without allowing more runs, but when the Mounties came up in the third, he was replaced by Dan Savino.
After striking out Greengrass, though, Savino hit Kenny Nedzi, then allowed three straight hits. He was replaced by Quincy Clark, who got the Pirates out of the inning. Still, the damage had been done and the Mounties had plated four more runs.
They repeated that the next inning as well before SHP reliever Luke Boylen finally blanked them in the bottom of the fifth.
Gavazzi said the success at the plate for Montclair was due to preparation during the morning’s batting practice.
The Mounties were expecting to see the lefthanded Hollander. In order to get ready, Gavazzi had several of the lefty coaches throw batting practice to get the batters comfortable with the way the ball would come off the mound.
“They gave them some good lefty looks. Two-seamers, changeups,” Gavazzi said. Then Gavazzi came in as right-handed ‘relief,’ as the Mounties knew a lot of the relievers would be right-handers.
“So throughout batting practice you could tell they were real locked in for both the lefty gameplan and the righty gameplan,” Gavazzi said. “And they did a great job executing it.”
Another place where Montclair executed to near-perfection was on the mound. Kyle Miller got the start and he, and co-head coach Anthony Genchi, along with Urquijo behind the plate, did an excellent job of keeping the Pirate hitters off-balance.
Throughout the first two innings, Miller faced just seven batters, striking out three, walking one and forcing the last three hitters into ground-outs or fly ball outs. It wasn’t until designated hitter Cole McGonigal came to the plate in the bottom of the third that Seton Hall Prep got their first hit, a double to right-center field.
McGonigal would score on a wild pitch, but Miller didn’t allow any more damage — and just one more hit — during the remainder of the game.
“Today I felt great,” Miller said after the game. “There were some stretches where my fastball wasn’t getting over to get me ahead, but my off-speed bailed me out. I was able to throw 1-0 curveballs, and 1-0 changeups. We got weak contact and more strikeouts than I usually get, so that was great.”
Being able use just one pitcher is a big advantage for the Mounties, who will face No. 13-seeded Memorial in the NJSIAA North 1, Group 4 tournament on Monday. The third-seeded Mounties will have their full staff, minus Miller, for that opening round.
“We knew we were short on pitching, so our pitchers needed to go out and be efficient,” Miller said. “And in a five-inning game, we don’t need to use any of our bullpen, which helps us going into Monday’s state tournament.”
“It certainly helps the pitching staff,” Gavazzi said. “He’s the only one who won’t be eligible for Monday and his outing was just extra beneficial to our team and pitching staff.”
Montclair continues to have momentum moving into the NJSIAA tournament, but their approach won’t change. They pride themselves on trying to win each individual inning and each individual at-bat. It’s something with has worked all season long, and it worked again on Saturday.
“We’ve got to control what we can control and that’s just focusing one pitch at a time, staying in that moment, playing it that way and giving it your best effort,” Gavazzi said. “We hoped that good things would happen for us and today, they certainly did.”