Red Raiders’ future bright after trip to sectional finals

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By Matthew Rocco

Keyport High School anticipates another successful baseball season next year after the team made it to its first NJSIAA sectional final appearance since 2003.

The Red Raiders want to build on this year’s run to the Central Jersey, Group I championship game — a destination that Keyport identified as a key objective heading into the season. While Keyport wasn’t able to pull off an upset over top-seeded South River High School, head coach Kyle Keelen said the Red Raiders played their best baseball down the stretch.

“It may have said 5-0 on the scoreboard, but it was a game that was played flawlessly by the other team,” Keelen said.

Keyport starter Kenneth Harrigan pitched well, allowing just four hits over 5.1 innings. But South River’s ace, Tyler Higgins, was even better. The Red Raiders managed just one hit and struck out 13 times against the senior right-hander. Higgins was hurling a no-hitter until the seventh inning, when Jackson Aumack hit an infield single to lead off the frame.

Keelen said the Red Raiders simply ran into a tough opponent in the finals, adding that the loss won’t take away from what the team accomplished in the postseason. The second-seeded Red Raiders shutout No. 10-seed Dunellen High School, 6-0, to reach the semifinals, where they squeaked by No. 3-seed South Amboy High School, 5-4. Kyle Mitchell drove in the game-winning run with a sixth-inning double.

“I can see us going back to the sectional finals next season. I feel very confident. If we get back there, I think it will be a different outcome,” Keelen said.

Keyport’s 2016 season has created plenty of optimism over the future of the baseball program. Following a 3-6 start to the season, the Red Raiders bounced back and went on an eight-game winning streak. The Red Raiders closed the spring with a 13-11 record overall, nearly doubling their win total from the previous season. They also went 10-4 against Shore Conference B Central Division rivals, which was good for third place in the division behind St. Rose High School and Mater Dei Prep. In the second meeting between the two schools, Keyport celebrated a 2-1, walk-off win over St. Rose — the eventual division champion. The Red Raiders were the only B Central team to hand St. Rose a loss.

The team accomplished all of that with a junior-heavy lineup, and Keyport will return all but two of its starting position players in 2017.

“The juniors are coming back next season, so the sky’s the limit,” Keelen said. “Our core group of talent is coming back.”

The experience gained during their run to the sectional championship game should make the Red Raiders more comfortable in big games next season.

“You have to remember, these kids are in high school, and they’re playing in the finals surrounded by 500 people,” Keelen said. “Our coaching staff, going back three years ago when the juniors were freshmen, we knew we had a team. Now they see what it’s like in big games. It will make them less nervous next year.”

Keyport will look for its current juniors to fill the void left by the senior class, particularly Kyle Mitchell and Steven Chandler. Mitchell was the team’s catcher and cleanup hitter, and Chandler both pitched and played shortstop. The Red Raiders will also lose Harrigan, who played a big role on the pitching staff, along with fellow seniors Mike Russo and Evan Smutz.

“We weren’t sure what to expect from our seniors this year, but they really stepped up. They are going to be hard to replace,” Keelen said.

Next season, the Red Raiders will welcome back Aumack, Kyle Johnson and sophomore Colin Fernandez, who started in his first year on the varsity team. Also due back are junior pitchers Christian Smith and Shane Chandler, who also had a strong season at the plate. Chandler hit third in Keyport’s lineup, and he was among the team leaders in hits and RBIs despite missing considerable time this season.

With talented players back in the fold, Keyport has another title run in mind for next year.

“We could be a team to be reckoned with,” Keelen said.