BY ANDREW GARDA
On Tuesday, Montclair High School’s baseball team did something it hasn’t done in modern high school baseball history — it reached the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 1, Group 4 finals with a tight, 6-5 win over Passaic Tech.
The last state title the Mounties won came in 1964, when they were North II champions.
Now the top-seeded Mounties (22-6-1, 6-4-1 SEC-American) await the winner of the game between Clifton and Livingston to find out whom they will welcome to Woodman Field for a game to decide the Group 4 champion.
The Mounties have been on a roll during this state tournament, with a 10-0 drubbing of Kearny in the first round on June 2, and then taking down No. 8-seeded West Orange (13-9, 9-3 SEC-Liberty) in a 7-0 win on Saturday, June 5.
If they win the sectional title Friday, they will advance to play for the group title.
Against Passaic Tech, Montclair put together a three-run fifth inning, but the Bulldogs responded with three runs of their own in the top of the sixth.
The Mounties scored three runs in the bottom half of that inning, and then had to hold off Passaic Tech again in the seventh, as the Bulldogs were able to score twice.
Montclair’s pitching and defense got the job done, though, and sent them to the finals.
It was the second game in a row that saw Montclair wait to score runs until later in the game, and a habit the team would like to avoid a repeat of on Friday.
The West Orange game was a nail-biter until late.
“It was certainly a real tight, competitive state tournament game, that’s typically how they are this time of the year,” head coach Ron Gavazzi said after the win over the Mountaineers. “I’m really proud of the way the guys persevered, kept competing all the way to the last pitch. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
For five innings against the Mountaineers, the Mounties clung to a one-run lead, as MHS starting pitcher Jeremy Sacks and West Orange starter Owen Murphy baffled batters. MHS scored once in the second inning, off a sacrifice bunt, but for the most part the two pitchers made it hard for either team to do much offensively.
When the Mountaineers were able to get men on base, Montclair’s defense helped Sacks out with sharp play both in the infield and outfield, keeping West Orange from advancing its runners.
Then came the sixth inning, and a deluge of Montclair runs.
First, the Mounties managed to start getting their timing down on Murphy, loading up the bases.
Then catcher Ethan Daddabbo connected on a mammoth shot, clearing the bases for a stand-up triple, giving the Mounties a 4-0 lead. After putting in a pinch runner for Daddabbo, Montclair plated that runner as well and would add two more runs to get the seven-run lead.
After that, Alex Veldran came in to relieve Sacks and finish off the Mountaineers in the seventh.
The Mounties had a quick turnaround, heading to Caldwell Monday, where they lost 11-0, before welcoming Passaic Tech to “The Wood” on Tuesday.
Gavazzi said the key to preparing for Tuesday was for his team to stay focused.
“We just have to keep our mind focused on the game, one pitch at a time, keeping real positive thoughts and staying real sharp on our fundamentals, and that will always give us our best chance to be successful,” he said.
Those fundamentals definitely include defense.
“We certainly preach [that] pitching and defense wins baseball games,” he said. “It’s no different in a state game. We need to make pitches and make plays, and we did [today] in the biggest moments of the game.”
Prior to Tuesday’s game against Passaic Tech, MHS had shut out the opposition, outscoring Kearny and West Orange 17-0. The five runs scored by the Bulldogs Tuesday were the first an opponent had plated against the Mounties in the state tournament.
While it took them a few innings to really get going against West Orange and Passaic Tech, the Mounties’ hitting overall has been tremendous this season and a big reason why they have won 11of their last 13 games and outscored their opponents 108 to 41.
With that momentum offensively and their solid defensive play, Montclair is in good shape regardless of whom they face Friday.
“Stay with it, the course, keep to the process, keep working hard, keep having fun playing, and hopefully we can play our best baseball games going forward,” Gavazzi said.
Passaic Tech finished second in the Big North – Liberty division and was coming off an equally dominant first two state tournament games, with a 8-0 shutout of Union City in the first round and a 7-1 win at Mount Olive in the quarterfinals.